Academia or Life? Joanna Cannan’s High Table

Joanna Cannan, Persephone Books

I’d never heard of Joanna Cannan until I saw her in the Persephone catalogue, but she was the mother of the Pullein-Thompson sisters and almost single-handedly invented the pony books genre which I devoured as a youngster. She is also a typical example of what has been called the ‘furrowed middle-brow’ type of literature which was so popular (and so well written) back in the 1920s and 30s.

My librarian thought I meant Joanna Cannon, whose books were readily available, but we finally managed to find one of her books in the deepest recesses of the cellar. The book is High Table, which is predictably about the Warden of a fictional Oxford college. Joanna Cannan herself was the daughter of an Oxford warden, so she knows her stuff.

Theodore Fletcher is the (anti?)hero of this book. A wimpy, self-conscious, anxious little boy of the late Victorian age – clever but not exactly brilliant at school, not any trouble either.

…his accuracy, his copperplate memory and lack of intellectual imagination were admirably suited to the precise demands of schoolwork. He was popular with his masters, for he gave them no trouble and looked like doing them credit, and the worship of the athlete had not then reached the later disproportionate stage.

He is of course the perfect target for bullies – not so much at school, but with the landed gentry in the village where his father is the rector. He is constantly reminded that of his inferiority in social status, social and physical skills, even looks. Luckily, he has the world of books as his refuge and I’m sure many of us earnest and bookish children labelled as ‘swots’ in our youth can relate to that:

All around the room in the shelves stood the books, waiting for you, not criticising you, you needn’t wonder or worry over what they were thinking, they didn’t care if you lost races or cheated at games, they didn’t whisper that you were short for your age or snigger at your spectacles; quiet and brown and learned… they waited for you, and you only had to open them and they’d each a world to give you, not a hot, hurrying, jeering world full of races you couldn’t win and balls you couldn’t catch and trees you couldn’t bear to climb, but the cool, slow, smooth world of the mind…

He goes to study at Oxford, but a holiday fling with a girl socially his inferior (but whose mind he would like to improve) results in a pregnancy. Horrified by what he has done, he shirks responsibility. The girl gets married to a farmer and moves away from the home village, while Theodore continues his academic pursuits in Oxford. On the eve of the First World War, he becomes the Warden of his college. The great pride he feels in his appointment is considerably diminished when he realises that he was in fact the compromise candidate, despised by his fellows but designed to keep other, more controversial although brilliant candidates out:

And now there’s nothing to come, nothing to hope for. I’ve got years and years before me… of being Warden and keeping Haughton out, and all of it to be spent with these men who’ve used me, who put me in this place when they had to find someone for it, because they thought, we’ll be able to manage Fletcher; he’s as weak as water’ he’ll be wax in our hands.

Bitterly disappointed, he then faces another challenge: seeing his beloved college and Oxford itself decimated by the war – or rather its young men disappearing. Gradually, he starts questioning the superiority of intellectual life, which has become meaningless in a world at war:

We’re not waiting. We’re left behind. Oxford’s no use in this, any more than scholarship or literature; a heap of earth out there that a man can take cover behind is of more use than the loveliest of our buildings… this ghastly feeling that your world had been nothing all along but an illusion, that everything you had lived for had been useless, impotent all this time?

Just about at this stage in his disillusionment, fate brings Lennie into his life, the eldest son of his former love, the result of his only amorous adventure. Suddenly, he feels he has been given a second chance to reconnect with life, real life.

I won’t spoil the rest of the story for you, but it is charmingly written, with many astute observations which keep it just this side of sentimentality. And, for all its Oxford setting, it is not strictly speaking a campus novel, although it shows quite clearly the disconnect between Oxbridge and real life. You cannot help but feel sorry for poor Theodore, infuriating though he undoubtedly is – the very illustration of ‘old fogey’. Overall, an enjoyable read but one which also raises questions about ivory towers and just how much we can bear to engage with the mess of the real world.

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Incy-Wincy Teeny-Weeny Reviews for End of 2018

Thank goodness for the holidays, which allowed me to read (although not necessarily finish) 15 books in December, including a real humdinger doorstopper like Lamentation. I will be reviewing those that fit into the #EU27Project separately if I haven’t already done so (actually, only Rein Raud fits here) but let me give a very quick review of the rest. Without reminding you too much of yellow polka-dot bikinis in this cold, I promise!

Cathy Ace: Wrong Boy

After glamorous international locations in her Cait Morgan series and a United Sleuths of the UK series, Cathy Ace returns to her home turf of Wales and a closed village community, a tale of family secrets, superstitions and dark folklore. Although I thought the plot a tad predictable and the ending overly dramatic, the tangled relationships and beautiful, if eerie landscapes made this an entertaining read. The book will be out January 9th.

Joan Didion: After Henry

The tribute to their editor (the Henry of the title) was very moving, the rest is a collection of essays, largely political, which were interesting but no longer cutting edge (all referring to the 1980s or thereabouts), so I skimmed through them. Not as good as other Joan Didion things I’ve read.

Petra Hammesfahr: The Sinner, transl. John Brownjohn

Reviewed it on Crime Fiction Lover. Interesting to compare and contrast the original German setting with the Americanization of the setting and the script.

S.J.I. Holliday: The Lingering

I don’t believe in ghosts and am not easily scared, so I suppose this wasn’t quite the book for me. I found the ‘cult’ aspect of it interesting though, and done quite well, without exaggerating the negative aspects.

Elif Batuman: The Idiot

I was an overseas student from a country perceived as backward in the 1990s, so I had such high hopes for this one. But it was dull. A lot of ‘she did this… and then she did this… and then they met… and then they talked.’ I just couldn’t be bothered to finish it, but perhaps it picks up towards the end.

C.J. Sansom: Lamentation

Katherine Parr is probably my favourite wife too (of Henry the VIII’s harem), so I enjoyed this from the point of view of time period and content. It is clearly well researched, and there are so many clever little details which fully immerse you in that period, without being overly stiff and pedantic. I enjoyed the characters, the random changes of politics and the depiction of the cruel and crude justice of that period, but I was not bowled over. It was just too long for my taste.

Antonio Manzini: Black Run, transl. Antony Shugaar

The murder plays second fiddle to the story of fish-out-water detective Rocco Schiavone exiled to Val D’Aosta. I loved the descriptions of mountain and snow and how Rocco struggles with his inadequate footwear, but the atmosphere did not quite make up for the lack of plot, real character depth or social analysis.

Marghanita Laski: The Victorian Chaise Longue

An odd little story of time-travel and the frustration of women’s secondary role in society in Victorian times and the so-called present-time setting of the book (I think it is set in the 1920s-30s, although it was published in 1953). Quite claustrophobic and disturbing, quietly terrifying, reminded me of The Yellow Wallpaper and The Turn of the Screw. But it is far more matter-of-fact and droll, with very sharp dialogue throughout.

Claire Fuller: Bitter Orange

Another book that excelled in terms of atmosphere and beautiful descriptions, but the story felt like something I’d read or seen a hundred times before. Notes on a Scandal and The Woman Upstairs spring to mind, and they both appealed to me more.

Lou Sarabadzic: La Vie verticale

One of the most effective and painful descriptions of what it is like to live with OCD, panic attacks, depression and then to undergo treatment when you are between cultures, between languages. Also an interesting ‘choose your own story’ structure, although it doesn’t really matter utimately, as there is no clear plotline or story arc. The structure is deliberately repetitive and circular, because this situation can reoccur, you are never entirely ‘cured’.

M.B. Vincent: Jess Castle and the Eyeballs of Death

English village cosy, with a dash of romance, although quite a horrific series of murders. It was a very entertaining and quick read, perfectly suited for New Year’s Eve, but not particularly memorable. Like M.C. Beaton but with younger protagonists.

Maybe I’d have been kinder to everyoone if I’d been reading in this armchair.

I realise I sound quite curmudgeonly about nearly all of the books this month. I was quite taken by the two books about the Yugoslav War and The Victorian Chaise Longue, but the rest were mostly popcorn and comfort food. However, 2019 has started strong with Scholastique Mukasonga’s The Barefoot Woman.

Favourite Reads of the Year

So we’ve finally reached the last couple of days of a busy, tiring, troubled year. May 2019 be merciful and kind and offer plenty of good reading at least, to distract us from the state of the world!

I’ve tried to hold off until now before making my ‘best of’ list, just in case some really good books that I read in December outweigh and outdazzle all of the others. In actual fact, only two of the December titles were contenders: two books about the war in Yugoslavia.

This is not a Top Ten or Top Twenty or any other systematic way of making a list. It’s simply a listing of all the books that really stood out and a brief quote or explanation to show why.

Library designed for Andrew Solomon, from Architectural Digest. I think that’s roughly the amount of shelf space I need.

Most Pleasant New Author Discovery

Cesar Aira: The Lime Tree

How could we have changed so much, if everything was still the same? It all seemed too much the same, in fact. I felt nostalgic for time itself… I was no longer the small child who had gone with his father to collect lime blossom, and yet I still was. Something seemed to be within my grasp, and with the right kind of effort, I felt that I might be able to reach out and take hold of it, like a ripe fruit…


Book I Was Most Obsessive About for a While

Lin Manuel Miranda & Jeremy McCarter: Hamilton The Revolution

Between Christmas 2017 and the time we went to see the Hamilton musical in April 2018, I had the soundtrack playing on repeat every single day, and these witty footnotes to the libretto and additional background on how the show came about was just what I needed. (Although I ostensibly bought the book for my son.)

Best Rediscovered Classic

J. L. Carr: A Month in the Country

I believe I can call this one a classic, although it was only written in the 1980s. Set in the 1920s, it has a very restrained, interwar novel feel about it, with a great deal of respect but no mawkish sentimentality for those who’d experienced the Great War. Also, a story of yearning rather than satisfaction, which reminded me of Brief Encounter.

Best Suspense Novel

Hanne Ørstavik: Love

To my complete surprise, it was not a crime novel which had me almost covering my eyes with fear and reading breathlessly, as if by putting this book down, I could endanger the characters in it, but this small, short story of a frustrated mother and a neglected boy on his birthday.

Best Biography

Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson. A Rather Haunted Life

Not that I read an awful lot of biographies this year, but this one would stand out any year.

Best Political Rallying Call

James Baldwin: The Fire Next Time

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain

In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation – if we are really, that is, to achieve out identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.

Best Regional Curiosity

Ödön von Horváth: Tales from the Vienna Woods

Social and class differences, urban vs. countryside contrasts, and the whole atmosphere of Vienna in the 1920s form the backdrop for this not necessarily terribly original story of love, envy, greed, betrayal, disappointment, but which rises to the universality of human experience like Greek drama.

Most Recognisable Situation

Sarah Moss: Night Waking

Scratch a little deeper beneath the amusing surface of modern family life with lively children and not-quite-there husbands, and you get something much deeper: the tension between academia (or any work involving thought and creativity) and motherhood, tensions within a couple, gender inequalities, class and culture differences.

Most Inspiring

Marina Tsvetaeva: Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922

Because she continued writing even in the direst of circumstances. [I chose the pseudonym Marina partly as an ‘homage’ to her.]

Best Escapism

Antti Tuomainen: Palm Beach Finland

Because it’s snort-out-loud funny, in the whole Fargo back comedy school of writing which I love. Speaking of which, Antti also features in the list below.

Best Crime Fiction

I had to choose my Top 5 Crime Fiction picks of the year for Crime Fiction Lover. Spoiler alert: one of them wasn’t fiction and one of them wasn’t a novel.

Best Book About the Yugoslav War

A topic that I will always, always find fascinating and emotional, so I saw a play and read two books about it this year. My favourite of those is probably Ivana Bodrožić: The Hotel Tito, because it is both a coming of age novel, as well as the story of displaced children.

Best Reread

Two compete for this category and they both still felt chillingly relevant today:

Tana French: Broken Harbour

George Orwell: Down and Out in Paris and London

Most Heartbreaking

Veronique Olmi: La Nuit en vérité

Olmi had already destroyed me with her piercing understanding of mother/child relationships, with all of its tender but also dysfunctional potential, in her masterpiece Beside the Sea. In this novel she returns to this theme, with a mother who is a housekeeper in a posh Parisian apartment with largely absent owners, and her lonely son who is being bullied at school.

Penelope Mortimer: The Pumpkin Eater

This story of an unravelling marriage and mother is just the right combination of funny, ironic, detached, cruel and devastating. A tour de force, hard to believe it was published in 1962, it still feels so modern. You might also want to read this poignant article about Mortimer’s marriage and life. “The outside world identified me as ‘ex-wife of John Mortimer, mother of six, author of The Pumpkin Eater’ [in that order]—accurate as far as it went, but to me unrecognisable.”

#EU27Project: Croatia – The Hotel Tito

‘Art allows more room for the truth, especially if your goal is not merely to tell your own story…’ says the author of The Hotel Tito Ivana Bodrožić. So this is most decidedly not a memoir, but a novel, the story of an entire generation of people who grew up in a country that suddenly disintegrated, children who had to leave their homes and grow up in displaced peoples’ housing.

Of course, even though the war ended, nobody won. In Zagreb people wanted to forget, but refugee families like the narrator’s are still writing letter after letter to the authorities in the hope of getting proper accommodation rather than camping out all in one room at a run-down hotel. The family separated from the father, who was left behind in Vukovar, and is now missing, presumed dead. The uncertainty of his fate and the lack of paperwork to confirm his death meant less rights in terms of benefits and housing.

These are similar themes to those tackled in Yugoslavia My Fatherland, but the viewpoint is resolutely that of the child here. We first meet her at the age of nine, when she first becomes aware of the war because her father tells her off for humming ‘Whoever claims Serbia is small is lying’. We grow up alongside her, see her almost superficial preoccupations about fitting in, putting on her make-up in secret and going out with boys, fighting with her older brother, being exasperated by her embarrassing grandparents. A normal teenager, whose normality keeps getting punctured by stark reminders of her ‘barely tolerated’ status. No wonder she soon develops a shell of cynicism around her:

It’s the hardest when they turn you down the first time, afterward you get used to it and you don’t care.

Seeing everything through the child’s naive perspective was a deliberate choice. The author says: ‘I knew I didn’t want to fall back on the wisdom of hindsight, I tried to set aside my adult perspective. I also didn’t want to spare anybody, including myself, in terms of treating with honesty the emotions I’d felt and my memories.’

In conclusion, both books are powerful and poignant reminders that destruction of life as we know it is always just a heartbeat away. I would recommend Goran Vojnović if you want the grown-up trying to analyse the situation calmly after the events, seeking to understand the mindset of the nationalists and finding himself not quite able to excuse them. But if you want to feel part of the events, how it feels to be a child refugee albeit in far more ‘civilised’ circumstances than many refugees experience today, and that life is not all bad, that children will be children and find ways to play, rejoice, forget and make suffering bearable, then Ivana Bodrožić is the way to go.

#EU27Project after a Year of Neglect

It turns out that it’s not only the UK government that is doing a bad job with their Brexit mission. I have also been somewhat neglectful of my duties as reader, reviewer and curator of the #EU27Project in 2018. Nevertheless, I’m delighted to say that some wonderful bloggers have been linking to the page even without my prodding, reminding and thanking them.

Just to remind you all, because it’s been such a long time that I may even have some new readers on my blog, this is the plan to read books from all the 27 countries that will continue to remain in the EU after the UK pulls out. Read, review, link. That is it. Multiple entries from the same country are accepted (even the norm). But ideally I would love to have at least one representative from those harder to reach/ not so much translated countries that make up the EU.

So I am very pleased to observe that we now have over 100 entries (there are a few duplicate entries and a lost Norwegian trying desperately to join the EU).

Some countries are over-represented – and that’s probably true when it comes to translation and publication. It should come as no surprise that Germany (19) and France (16) are the top runners, but you may be surprised to hear that Austria is punching well above its weight in terms of population (10). That probably has something to do with Lizzy and Caroline’s wonderful initiative of German Literature Month, which is about literature written in the German language rather than just the one produced in Germany.

Other small countries (or sparsely populated ones) that have done well are The Netherlands (7) and Finland (6). It’s somewhat surprising that Ireland hasn’t done better (6), given that there are no translation issues and so many of the great writers of the English tongue are in fact Irish. I also expected Italy (6) and Spain (5) to do better, given their vast literary tradition and what seems to be a respectable amount of translation into English.

If this had been a crime fiction community, I suspect that Sweden would have done far, far better, but it’s only had one review so far! In contrast, teensy Denmark and Belgium have had 4 each. Of the more recent EU members, Poland leads the way with just 3, while Czechia, Croatia and Latvia have 2 each.

Notable absences from this list: Hungary (although I did do a vlog which included the first volume of Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian trilogy), Romania (because I was too picky about which book should represent my home country) and Greece – oddly, three of the countries I know best. from the EU. I have a couple of reviews to upload for Estonia and Croatia And I’m still struggling to find anything from Cyprus, Malta or Luxembourg. So I’d be especially grateful for any reviews that you might have reflecting all the countries in this paragraph!

Sincerely hoping that you will take part too if you read any books from any of the #EU27 countries between now and the end of March, I will leave you with this map of all the traditional Christmas sweets from Europe. (Not all of them are 100% correct, nor are they all EU, but we’re all about approximations for now!) Happy Holidays!

WWWednesday 19 December, 2018

A lovely meme to help us catch up with ourselves and others, as hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. I only get a chance to join in once a month, and what a difference a month makes!

The three Ws are:

  • What are you currently reading?
  • What did you recently finish reading?
  • What do you think you’ll read next?

Currently reading:

Lou Sarabadzic: La vie verticale

I met Lou at the Asymptote Book Club meeting last month and completely fell in love with her wit, erudition and style. Then I discovered that we both lived in virtually the same place (not at the same time) in France. Her novel, available in e-book format from her French publisher, Publienet, is about overcoming OCD and depression, and about rebuilding your life abroad.

Rein Raud: The Death of the Perfect Sentence, transl. Matthew Hyde

My Estonian contribution for the #EU27Project is an experimental spy thriller, if you can imagine such a thing, set in the dying days of the Soviet empire and the rise of the Estonian independence movement. Fascinating, oddly familiar and yet also completely new insights. Very funny too in parts.

Just finished:

S.J.I. Holliday: The Lingering

An idealistic, isolated community, suspicious villagers, an abandoned hospital teeming with ghosts, a couple trying to run away from their troubles… Wicker Man meets The Turn of the Screw with elements of The Lovely Bones thrown in for good measure. 

Petra Hammesfahr: The Sinner, transl. John Brownjohn

After seeing the first two episodes of this US crime series (1st season), I was very curious to read the original German novel that it was based on. There are significant differences between book and TV adaptation, but both are excellent at keeping your adrenaline on high alert. You can read my full review on Crime Fiction Lover.

Up next:

I don’t usually like Christmassy reads, but am quite fond of wintry scenes, so here are a couple of escapist books I am considering for my next read:

Antonio Manzini: Black Run

Well, who doesn’t dream of perfect snow conditions on the perfect black run? The Aosta Valley in Italy sounds idyllic, it’s just on the other side of my beloved Mont Blanc, and anything to do with skiing makes me happy, especially since I know I won’t be doing any skiing this year. I suppose I can also use it for Italy for #EU27Project.

Sigrid Nunez: The Last of Her Kind

I’d been reading about The Friend, the latest book by Sigrid Nunez, which won the National Book Award in the US this year. But I thought I’d start with this earlier book by the same author, about a complicated college friendship between two young women of very different social backgrounds (against the backdrop of 1968, the 1970s and then decades later).

I’d love to hear what you’ve got planned for reading over Christmas. Above all, I hope you get some time to read!

#EU27Project: Slovenia

Goran Vojnovic: Yugoslavia, My Fatherland, transl. Noah Charney

Goran Vojnović is a Slovenian scriptwriter, film-maker, journalist and writer. As far as I can tell from the scant biographical details available in English, he was born and grew up in Ljubljana, but encountered other immigrants from former Yugoslavia in a ghetto estate in his home town. Their plight (and the prejudice against them) impressed him so much that he wrote a novel about it Southern Scum, Go Home! which drew some unflattering attention from the Slovene police. With his second and third novel all winning the most prestigious literary prize in Slovenia, he seems to be a versatile writer at the top of his game.

That first novel hasn’t been translated, alas, into English but his second novel Yugoslavia, My Fatherland has, with partial funding from the EU as part of the ‘Stories that Can Change the World’ initiative. And indeed, this one does change the world.

I was shocked recently to hear people of my age who could barely remember the Yugoslav War. Although I didn’t live there, it marked my youth decisively and tainted my joy at the fall of Communism. When people say that the EU has allowed the continent of Europe to live in peace for so many decades, I always feel uncomfortable. It feels disrespectful somehow, as if they are forgetting this cruel war which showed us that our old, civilised continent had not outgrown its barbaric feuds. Simply because it took place ‘on the outskirts’, in the Balkans, where it’s always been messy anyway. 

The novel follows two timelines: Vladan in the present-day, a young man who discovers that the Serb father he believed dead is in fact still alive and most likely a war criminal. The second timeline tells the story of how his parents met, their contented lives in Pula before the outbreak of the war, how his father (an army officer) had to go to fight and how Vladan the little boy fled with his Slovenian mother to the relative safety of Ljubljana.

As Vladan searches for his father, who he believes lives in hiding somewhere in Serbia, he also relives some of the most distressing moments of his childhood. His mother sinks into a deep depression once they moved to a hotel in Belgrade as refugees, waiting for news from his father. 

Lying there on the floor of room 211, I suddenly felt that I had neither a father nor a mother anymore, that I was without friends, that everyone in the hotel had forgotten about me, and that no one in the world would be interested in me anymore. So I kept on lying there, waiting for Dusha [his mother] to emerge from the bathroom. I felt so unwanted, so lonely, that I promised myself that the Bristol Hotel would be the last hotel I would ever set foot in.

He meets old friends of his father and family members who are still numbed by the war and trying to understand how it could have happened. 

They all used to be Yugoslavs. And they were all communists…we who defended Yugoslavia stood side-by-side, in the same uniform,with those who demolished it. We sang the same anthem and bore the same coat-of-arms. But what was mine to me wasn’t theirs to them… The country fell apart because it didn’t mean more to any of them than their own arseholes… The Yugoslavs disappeared overnight, as if they’d never existed… I’m only sorry about my old man, who built this country with his bare hands. I’m glad he died before he could seethe scum he’d built all those bridges, schools and hospitals for. The scum he left all this to. They lived among us all those years, smiled at us in our Tito’s Pioneers uniforms, waved flag but, in the end, they could’t wait for it all to end, so they could fight with each other.


Vladan is always in-between cultures, and therefore never fully buys the rhetoric of any of different nationalities that used to make up the Yugoslav Republic. He is profoundly distrustful of sentimentalising the past, which can be used all too quickly to stoke up nationalistic resentments. He calls it the ‘Infantile Balkan Sentiment Syndrome’, an important ingredient in the periodic fratricide that afflicts that region. The war in Bosnia, he explains to his patient Slovenian girlfriend, who grew up untainted by the war, was ‘one big nightmare of yearning, one big bloody orgy of mental pain. The revenge of the lovesick, of the twisted and the eternally immature.’

The dual narrative allows the grown-up narrator to cast a new light on the defining moments of his childhood. In contrast to The Hotel Tito, which is most determinedly a coming of age novel, and all is narrated by the young protagonist in the present tense, here the author slips fluidly across timelines, adding depth and poignancy to each.

Author picture, courtesy of Istros Books.

The tricky issue of culpability of the older generation and how the younger generation accuse them of blindness and self-interest has also been addressed in German literature, but I found this strand of the story slightly less compelling. I myself longed for more of the child refugee narrative, which is perhaps the part which resonates most with the utter puzzlement expressed by my friends from Yugoslavia. For example, as soon as Vladan starts school in Slovenia, he is made aware of ethnic differences, and a Bosnian refugee called Daniel tells him what’s what:

I was a Serb, because Nedelko was a Serbian name, and so was Vladan, and that it didn’t matter that my mother was Dusha, because nationality was determined by the father. He was a Muslim because his father was Muslim… [in their class] there were seven Slovenians, two Croats, three Muslims, eight Serbs, one Macedonian, one Albanian and a few fags who wouldn’t say what their fathers were called, and so were hiding what they were so they wouldn’t be teased.

All this was new to me because, in Pula, we only knew that some people had ‘nonnas’ and some had ‘grandmothers’ and some had ‘grannies’, and none of us realized that this meant something, but we certainly didn’t ask people what their father’s names were, in order to draw conclusions based on something so bizarre.

Aerial view of Pula. A lost world for our narrator.

For his secondary education, Vladan ends up in a grammar school, with the most ‘carefree’ children in the world. Suddenly, none of his past experiences seem to matter anymore. He finds it hard to believe that these children once were part of the same country.

Kids from high school skied in France; they played tennis; visited European capitals; skated and tried pot. They were kind and clever and they listened to professors during lessons… They couldn’t care less about Serbs, Croats and Muslims, and most of them didn’t even distinguish between them. They didn’t ask eac other about their fathers’ names, and didn’t fight about who started the war in Bosnia. They didn’t  have cousins who had been drafted into the army, uncles who were left without legs, grandmothers and grandfathers who were exiled, or aunts killed by grenades.

So will Vladan find his father in the end and will his father have a good explanation for why he did what he did during the war? Will they be reconciled? You’ll have to read this and see. But don’t make those questions your end goal. This book is worth reading for the attempt to paint a fresco of a country which has disappeared, and a people who are still trying to make sense of it all.

Finally, I can imagine that Vojnović, heavily critical as he is of all sides in the war, must be quite a controversial figure in Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia, where everyone prefers a single (heavily edited) explanation or answer. I would love to hear what local reviewers made of this novel.