By Jason Quinn Malott
Published October 2009 by Unbridled Books
Acquired from: Unbridled Books
In July 1995, American photojournalist, Gray Banick, disappeared in the Bosnian war zone. The last person who knew him, his intrepreter, Emil, thought that he was also the last person to see him alive. Two years later, though, Emil has begun to wonder if Gray is still alive. He determines to search for proof of Gray's death or his survival. To help him, he recruits two other people who loved Gray: Jack MacKenzie, Gray's mentor and friend, and Lian Jiang, a former lover who Emil knows Gray was still deeply in love with.
Despite the war being over, nothing is easy yet in and around Sarajevo and with Emil, Jack and Lian all battling their own demons, the job they are undertaking is painful. Emil is struggling with the slaughter of his family, a cousin who is severely disabled and only wants to die, and a woman who wants to love him although he is has not even up the idea that the fiancee who was carried off by the Serbs might still be alive. Jack is struggling with the aftereffects of gunshot wounds to his legs, a raging case of alcoholism, an ex-wife who left him when he refused to stay home and a daughter who despises him. And Lian, a Chinese-American, is struggling with a marriage she is not happy in and unresolved feelings about Gray, whom she betrayed.
This sounds like a lot for any author to throw into a story and this is Malott's first novel. But it never seems like too much. Given the circumstances of all these three characters, all of these things seem entirely natural.
This from the first paragraph of the novel:
"She lies in the small bed the same way she did as a child, her arms crossed over her chest and the arches of her feet pressed together. It's the position of a corpse, and she once thought it would fool the ghosts into believing she was already dead."
Malott has written a very compelling, very real novel. I was immediately drawn into the book wondering first what had happened between Lian and Gray that would cause them to separate and wondering what had happened to Emil's family. Malott does travel back and form in time and this sometimes happened so quickly that I got confused and had to reread passages to put them back into the correct time sequence. The horrors of the Bosnian war and told without whitewash and I learned a lot about what happened during this time. Interestingly, the book frequently talks about the inability or unwillingness of the UN troops to help the Bosnians, a topic that my son and I had just discussed in a more general context right before I started to read the book.
When explaining why people take up smoking during war time:
"It's either that or go stir-crazy...And when someone can kill you at any moment, it doesn't make any kind of sense to worry about your health. Then there's the stench that comes with war. Dead bodies, blood, sh&*. A cigarette deadens your sense of smell."
I truly cared what would happen to each of these characters and continued to hold on to the hope that they would find Gray, even though there seemed to be no real hope that he could have survived, let alone that they would find any proof of it. This is book that's not for everyone. The squimish should avoid it and anyone who prefers a book where everyone lives happily ever after. This is a story that reads like real life.