Monday, September 26, 2005

Homecoming by Natasha Radojcic

This 2002 novel is a stunner. It’s the story of Halid, a Muslim soldier, injured and traumatized by fighting in Sarajevo; he returns to his village (which has not suffered much visible damage) but cannot quite bring himself to knock on his mother’s door. It’s village life, though, so as he runs into a gypsy boy (a son of the local arms smuggler), an old friend, the baker, the town Jew and sage, it’s quickly clear that his mother has heard, from more than one source, that he is back. Still, in this world where women—especially widows—keep to their homes and observe social customs with great fidelity, Halid knows that she will not seek him.

Like Mrs. Dalloway and Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier, Homecoming tells the story of the reverberations of war, its after effects, its lingering injuries, and the havoc it wreaks on women’s lives. Radojcic’s treatment of the women characters here is fascinating: there are whores and widows, a gypsy child bride and a lost love and we see them all through Halid’s sensitive but unsentimental and patriarchal gaze. This means that, more than West or Woolf, Radojcic is crude the way that men are when, together, they flirt with a woman or assess her looks. At the same time, her description of how the hardship of war has ruined his love’s beauty emerges out of grief, not a cold-blooded judgment of a woman’s lost worth.

It’s difficult to talk about this book without spoiling it and I won’t because you should read it: it’s short and really great. I think it’s worthy of being compared to books like Barker’s WWI trilogy, Woolf, or West (I know the WWI canon best). It’s also clearly deeply indebted to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He’s Natasha’s favorite & his influence lies clearly on this book. Usually that means something almost kitschy: suddenly old men with wings start showing up in her work, too, but here, it has more to do with an affectionate and intense understanding of how gossip works, of village life and its incredibly complex permutations. Thus, in Homecoming, Muslims, Christian Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies all interact and know each other and treat each other with love, suspicion or wary respect based on some combination of stereotypes, political facts, and individual character. This seems akin to the way that people treat, say, priests in Garcia Marquez: being a priest means something in Colombia, but it does not mean only one thing and everyone in the village knows which priest is greedy, which lovingly dedicated to the poor, which cannot hold his liquor and which can, who is smart, who doesn't know Latin, etc. I would say that the final chapter is a bit too indebted to Chronicle of a Death Foretold but that is a quibble with an otherwise totally terrific book. I’m going off to get my hands on her memoir-novel, You Don’t Have to Live Here, too. But I promised my mom I’d read The Summer Guest next. And then, there’s Laila Lalami’s new book, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits: that’s beckoning, too.

You can hear a great interview with Radojcic on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate show here (scroll down).

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