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Louis de Berniers never fails to move me and while this is not his best work it is remarkable in its ability to truly understand what People are like. It's a baffling journey through the unlikely relationship struck up between a sad, lonely, middle aged man, Chris, and a sad, lonely young woman, Roza, who have been brought together in the most unlikely fashion.
Chris, who is apparently not the kind of man who picks girls up, on impulse and thinking that Roza, a young Yugoslav girl living in Archway, is a prostitute (which indeed she once was) clumsily attempts to proposition her. They form a curious attachment and during Chris' frequent visits, Rosa spends her time smoking filthy cigarettes in her equally filthy basement telling Chris stories (of dubious veracity) of her life, her sexual awakening and development, and her journey towards becoming the person he knows.
Chris, whose interest in Roza is always explicitly sexual despite the feelings he eventually develops towards her, is a docile audience sharing little of his own life with her largely because he has so little to share. The poignancy of his stories is all the greater because of this and I felt equal waves of compassion and pity towards this quite unremarkable man, for all that he had, for that he had wanted to have, and for all that he had failed to achieve in ways very different to that I felt for Roza who, despite being a pitiable and pitiful character, I could never decide whether to trust.
Without wishing to give anything away, the manner in which he behaves towards the end of the book is predictable, frustrating, heartbreaking, and utterly, utterly human. It may not be a fairy tale ending but it highlights de Berniers' complete understanding of human nature.
De Berniers is a master at drawing his reader in. The stories Roza tells are often banal and ordinary. Stories about the ordinary lives or ordinary people. There is not the soaring intellect and philosophy that is characteristic of so much of his other work, this is just a book about ordinary people, one of whom has had a very ordinary life, the other (if she can be believed) a quite extraordinary one. But both have reached this point as a result of the decisions they made, of the opportunities they took and those they failed to take, and it draws you in utterly.
I'm no literary reviewer, and I don't want to give anything away. But I really encourage anyone and everyone to read this. It is essentially a story human loss, of love and a love affair that never realises itself, and of the foolish things People do for, and because of, love.
Stuck in a boring and loveless marriage to a wife he now calls "The Great White Loaf", medical rep, Chris, finally decides - after years spent considering it - to pick up a prostitute. Driving around North London one night he spots Roza ands pulls up along side the pavement. Roza isn't a working girl, though, but something about Chris and his sincere apology makes her get in the car anyway and ask Chris to drive her home. Touched by Chris's embarrassment Roza decides that he's not like other men and as she gets out of the car she makes an open invitation for Chris to drop by for coffee, but not before telling him that he couldn't have afforded her anyway - when she WAS a prostitute she used to charge £500.
A couple of weeks later (having started hiding a fiver away here and there behind his wife's back) Chris knocks at the door of the ramshackle house that Roza shares with a bunch of drop-outs, hippies and would-be actors. So begins a compelling and heart-warming relationship that hinges on Roza's repertoire of weird and wonderful tales from her childhood in Tito's Yugoslavia to arriving in London at the end of the 1970s - when the story is set. At first Chris is there because he wants sex with Roza but soon her stories have him hooked and after he has been with her he goes to the library to learn more about the events and places she's told him about. Roza, starting to become quite attached to Chris, thinks that it is her stories that keep Chris coming back and tries to make them as interesting as possible. But if Roza really is from Yugoslavia, why does Chris bump into her in the library reading a history of Yugoslavia and why doesn't Chris ask her about it?
The first thing that struck me about "A Partisan's Daughter" is that it is more like a long short story (if there can be such a thing) than a novel. Chris and Roza are the two main characters; only one other actually appears as a real part of the story, a young mechanic who lives in the room above Roza's, and who Roza also tells her stories to. The narration is shared, by way of alternating chapters, between Roza and Chris. This keeps the pace lively and lets you see Chris's reaction to Roza's stories immediately as he responds in his own chapter after each of her stories. We also get the story from two perspectives which can be comical at times but more often is quite touching because, as perceptive and street wise as Roza thinks she is, she really doesn't see what she is doing to Chris who, in turn, continues to believe that Roza is a prostitute he can buy just as soon as he has that £500.
Roza and Chris couldn't be more different. Chris has a grown up daughter and spends his days driving round the south-east selling medical products; the joy has long since disappeared from his marriage and he believes his wife's raison d'etre is to spend the money Chris earns. Roza is frank and confident, an immigrant from Yugoslavia who predicts the breakup of the country long before it happens. She's not conventionally beautiful but to Chris she is gorgeous. Roza's character is more interesting and complex but that of Chris is a bit predictable and one dimensional, probably intentionally.
I found Roza's stories utterly compelling; Yugoslavia is my subject but I loved the way she combined tales of growing up in a village near Belgrade with accounts of her family members and some of those rites of passage events that could happen to kids anywhere. You can't help but raise an eyebrow at some of her tales but there is one thing that cannot be questioned - Roza is a brilliant storyteller. It's worth reading "A Partisan's Daughter" for Roza's accounts of growing up in Serbia, her subsequent time at university in Zagreb and the story of how she ended up in England, even if the rest of the novel has some flaws.
One of the problems I had was the way Chris responds to some of Roza's tales; it would spoil the book if I was to say which stories in particular but there are some tales that are quite bizarre and Chris doesn't react to them in the way I think most people would. I realise he is obsessed with Roza but his refusal to examine - or perhaps his failure to even get an uneasy feeling about what she is saying - some of her more shocking stories seems to me totally unrealistic.
I also felt that the setting was overworked. The constant references to events in the news, uncollected rubbish on the streets and the advent of punk music were too much. In particular the mentions of Chris's "shit brown Allegro" seemed to me the mark of an author trying too hard.
The setting is, I feel, still important, though. In Britain Mrs Thatcher is about to take power, in Yugoslavia Tito is soon to die. These days we don't consider forty to be old but Chris considers himself out of touch with young people, he doesn't know what music they like and he finds the lives of the young people in Roza's house quite exciting and exotic. The clash of cultures between Roza and her housemates and Chris and his suburban life is a reflection of what is going on in Britain at the time. The Conservatives might be about to take power but the youth subcultures are stronger than ever -the two are as opposite as Roza and Chris. In one very comical scene the young man living upstairs tells Chris he is wearing a black armband because Bob Dylan - after spending years singing songs that criticise religion - is now writing songs that promote it.
Finally, the ending - the biggest disappointment in the book, and something I feel Louis de Bernieres tackles in a most predictable, clumsy and amateurish way. From Chris's narrative I think the ending was heavily sign-posted throughout the book but I did expect a write of this calibre to do something a little less obvious.
Roza's stories - a modern day Arabian Nights - are the high spot of "A Partisan's Daughter" but how addictive you find them may depend on how interesting you find the history of Yugoslavia. I liked the overall idea of the book but I felt that it could have been executed better. Readers familiar with some of De Berniere's other novels may be disappointed with "A Partisan's Daughter" because it lacks the descriptive brilliance of works such as "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" focussing more on dialogue.
For all my criticisms I read this book from cover to cover in a few hours, charmed by Roza and her tales and desperate to know what she'd tell Chris next. As much as this, I loved the way there is always a nagging doubt about Roza and her stories. Is she genuine? Did all this happen? Is she even from Yugoslavia? De Berniere's is never so direct as to openly suggest that it's all a charade but he leaves penty of little signs to indicate that we should at least consider the possibility that Roza is not what she says she is.