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The tumultuous history of the crisis-torn Balkans rendered in a gripping panoramic novel.

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This sweeping historical fiction, the first in a projected trilogy, covers 10 centuries in the history of Dalmatia, in the former Yugoslavia.

The framing device of Tuma’s novel is the life and memories of Maria Peric, a 66-year-old historian and hotel owner on the peaceful Croatian island of Pag, in the Adriatic Sea. She’s the doting grandmother of Paula, a young girl suffering from leukemia, and to distract the child, she tells stories about the long history of Dalmatia and the Balkan region. Maria has her own traumatic history: “Like thousands of Croatians, Bosnians and Serbians from former Yugoslavia, I am one of the victims of that bloody Balkan war ravaging the heart of Europe in the nineties.” But in the book’s ensuing chapters, Maria tells Paula dramatic stories from the past, starting with the ancient Greeks of the sixth century B.C. and moving on to the Roman emperor Diocletian (“still the most important politician of all times coming from our shores”) and to the 14th-century empire of Ragusa, which controlled the world’s trade routes and grappled with the mighty Venetian Republic. The narrative moves on to the Ottoman Empire and eventually to the rebirth and fall of modern 20th-century Yugoslavia. By pausing the narrative and using fiction to illuminate daily life in each era, Tuma’s dramatization is reminiscent of Rebecca West and James Michener. The momentum of all that history brings the book to the present, to the trial of a Yugoslavian war criminal at The Hague, forming the backdrop for a jarring transition to the book’s second half, which abandons history and deals with the modern-day politics and daily lives of a disparate group of survivors of the recent Balkan wars. The prose throughout can be clunky and a bit prone to cliché, while the relationships in the present day—especially those involving the overly saintly Paula—are curiously less convincing than any of those set in the past. Still, Tuma’s human insights and her considerable scene-painting abilities shed great amounts of light on a region and a people often overlooked in historical fiction, and subsequent volumes should help sharpen the focus on the modern era.

The tumultuous history of the crisis-torn Balkans rendered in a gripping panoramic novel.

Pub Date: June 22, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4839-6922-0

Page Count: 516

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2014

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Too beholden to sentimentality and cliché, this novel fails to establish a uniquely realized perspective.

Hunter’s debut novel tracks the experiences of her family members during the Holocaust.

Sol and Nechuma Kurc, wealthy, cultured Jews in Radom, Poland, are successful shop owners; they and their grown children live a comfortable lifestyle. But that lifestyle is no protection against the onslaught of the Holocaust, which eventually scatters the members of the Kurc family among several continents. Genek, the oldest son, is exiled with his wife to a Siberian gulag. Halina, youngest of all the children, works to protect her family alongside her resistance-fighter husband. Addy, middle child, a composer and engineer before the war breaks out, leaves Europe on one of the last passenger ships, ending up thousands of miles away. Then, too, there are Mila and Felicia, Jakob and Bella, each with their own share of struggles—pain endured, horrors witnessed. Hunter conducted extensive research after learning that her grandfather (Addy in the book) survived the Holocaust. The research shows: her novel is thorough and precise in its details. It’s less precise in its language, however, which frequently relies on cliché. “You’ll get only one shot at this,” Halina thinks, enacting a plan to save her husband. “Don’t botch it.” Later, Genek, confronting a routine bit of paperwork, must decide whether or not to hide his Jewishness. “That form is a deal breaker,” he tells himself. “It’s life and death.” And: “They are low, it seems, on good fortune. And something tells him they’ll need it.” Worse than these stale phrases, though, are the moments when Hunter’s writing is entirely inadequate for the subject matter at hand. Genek, describing the gulag, calls the nearest town “a total shitscape.” This is a low point for Hunter’s writing; elsewhere in the novel, it’s stronger. Still, the characters remain flat and unknowable, while the novel itself is predictable. At this point, more than half a century’s worth of fiction and film has been inspired by the Holocaust—a weighty and imposing tradition. Hunter, it seems, hasn’t been able to break free from her dependence on it.

Too beholden to sentimentality and cliché, this novel fails to establish a uniquely realized perspective.

Pub Date: Feb. 14, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-399-56308-9

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Nov. 21, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2016

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A deeply satisfying novel, both sensuously vivid and remarkably poignant.

Norwegian novelist Jacobsen folds a quietly powerful coming-of-age story into a rendition of daily life on one of Norway’s rural islands a hundred years ago in a novel that was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.

Ingrid Barrøy, her father, Hans, mother, Maria, grandfather Martin, and slightly addled aunt Barbro are the owners and sole inhabitants of Barrøy Island, one of numerous small family-owned islands in an area of Norway barely touched by the outside world. The novel follows Ingrid from age 3 through a carefree early childhood of endless small chores, simple pleasures, and unquestioned familial love into her more ambivalent adolescence attending school off the island and becoming aware of the outside world, then finally into young womanhood when she must make difficult choices. Readers will share Ingrid’s adoration of her father, whose sense of responsibility conflicts with his romantic nature. He adores Maria, despite what he calls her “la-di-da” ways, and is devoted to Ingrid. Twice he finds work on the mainland for his sister, Barbro, but, afraid she’ll be unhappy, he brings her home both times. Rooted to the land where he farms and tied to the sea where he fishes, Hans struggles to maintain his family’s hardscrabble existence on an island where every repair is a struggle against the elements. But his efforts are Sisyphean. Life as a Barrøy on Barrøy remains precarious. Changes do occur in men’s and women’s roles, reflected in part by who gets a literal chair to sit on at meals, while world crises—a war, Sweden’s financial troubles—have unexpected impact. Yet the drama here occurs in small increments, season by season, following nature’s rhythm through deaths and births, moments of joy and deep sorrow. The translator’s decision to use roughly translated phrases in conversation—i.e., “Tha’s goen’ nohvar” for "You’re going nowhere")—slows the reading down at first but ends up drawing readers more deeply into the world of Barrøy and its prickly, intensely alive inhabitants.

A deeply satisfying novel, both sensuously vivid and remarkably poignant.

Pub Date: April 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-77196-319-0

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Biblioasis

Review Posted Online: Jan. 12, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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