Dora and Luka meet and become firm friends. In normal situations one might add 'and a whole lot more' to that sentence, but Dora and Luka are in Kindergarten, which makes their intense relationship hard to define. As they grow into adults, however, it becomes obvious that there is something between them and no matter how much they, or their circumstances, try to fight this it is there and is not going to fade away. Dora's parents move her across the continent, careers develop and flourish, out of nowhere they are enveloped by family lives, but still there is an invisible bond that draws them back to one another.
This is the story of a determined woman and an infatuated, though at times annoyingly indecisive, man. Everything else passes in the background, fading away in the shadow of their relationship. Some might view it as a circular tale that goes round and round with nothing changing. I prefer to see it as the greatest love story ever told.
This is the most international of books. Set between coastal Croatia and Paris it was originally written in German by a Croatian author and devoured by this reader on a Croatian beach since that seemed only appropriate. Because of the time the book covers, starting in 1959 and progressing through the Yugoslav wars of the 90s, the landscape changes with every chapter though this seems to be secondary to the relentless, unwavering passion between Dora and Luka.
I am not always the biggest fan of translations because sometimes if I don't get on with the story I don't know whether to blame the author or translator, but I liked the way this one read regardless of whose stamp it had on it. It is the first time a translation has had me in tears but the tissues had to come out for the last few chapters, something I'd not been expecting given how it started. The sentences are short and punchy, often fragments of thoughts, of memories. It's vaguely sterile in places, neat observations that lack feelings. The picture of Croatia that is painted is an ordinary, everyday one, fitting for characters who have never lived anywhere else and who don't know any better than sparkling seas, busy harbours and melting scoops of gelato. When Dora moves to Paris you can feel her excitement at her new surroundings and the city comes alive in her paragraphs (the book alternating between our leading duo).
Perhaps some of the behaviour of Dora and Luka as children could be questioned, namely for how age appropriate it is. As they grow, the few years between them fail to matter, but when they first meet, with him as a five year old and her just two, it struck me as odd that they would become friends. Even taking into account how precocious she is (just wait for her first fainting-induced monologue!) he is more than double her age and that cannot be ignored. Perhaps they feel something we don't, though. Maybe when it's the right person, your soul mate, your prince, you just know.
This is an unusual book, both in its style and its looping story that sees the same characters rehashing the same situations again and again, but I found it charming and quirky. The story is undoubtedly a tragic one, with the couple only coming out of it a smidge better off than Romeo and Juliet. You can lose yourself in the action quite easily, but I never shook off the feeling that I was an observer rather than part of the story. Luka and Dora need no one else, that is quite clear, and the narration distances itself from the couple, keeping everything and everyone at arm's length.
I think this book would make a great film, but if Hollywood took it on, it would no doubt lose a little something in the process. The story is magical and unique, and needs no air brushing to perfect it or bring it alive.
This review first appeared on www.thebookbag.co.uk
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