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I bought this book on a 3 for 2 deal in Waterstones recently, it looked interesting from the blurb on the back and I remembered hearing about it from a friend who had really enjoyed it. Also, on the front it stated that it had been a finalist in the 2008 National Book Awards and I have a feeling it was on Richard and Judy's book club for that year also.
So, I figured it was going to be a very interesting and enjoyable read. I have to say though it left me feeling a bit empty.
Published in 2008, this is the second novel by Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian-Herzegovinian author who, to his credit, writes amazingly good prose in what is his second language. I cannot fault the standard of English in this novel and it is quite impressive how poetic this novelist can be in what is not his mother tongue.
This novel follows two seperate but linked threads, firstly the murder by a police chief of a young Bosnian imigrant in Chicago in 1908, this is Lazarus Averbuch and explains the title because the second thread follows a modern day Bosnian immigrant, Vladimir Brik who is a 'writer' struggling to actually publish anything and married to an American surgeon who is (seemingly) far more successful in her life than he.
Brik is intrigued by the story of the death of Lazerus Averbuch (which is an actual historic event) and due to their shared heritage he takes it upon himself to investigate the events and re-trace some of his footsteps back in Bosnia and the surrounding balkan countries. He does this with childhood friend and Bosnian compatriate Rora who is a photographer, the story deals with their very different memories and accounts of the Bosnian conflict in the 90s (Rora was there whilst Brik was already in the states) and reflects on the changing nature of immigration and response to it by the USA.
The main protagonist is Brik who narrates his thread in the first person, we also have an omniscient narrator in the other thread about Lazarus. In the modern day thread most of the action centres around Brik and Rora, their shared and seperate memories and associates. We also hear a lot about Mary, Brik's American wife who is a successful brain surgeon from an atypical Catholic family background.
In the Lazarus thread we are most acquainted with Lazarus' sister Olga who is shocked and devestated at the death of her little brother who she chaperoned from Bosnia for a better life. She is harrassed by police and journalists while she tries to uncover the truth and mentally faces the prospect of writing home to break the news to her mother.
The language is quite beautiful, the prose is strong and it does read very well. The characters are quite well detailed and in particular Olga is heartbreaking to follow because her despair is so well detailed. His writing style seems to flow almost like poetry and it is easy to see why this was nominated for book awards (including the Critic's Choice).
The last few chapters were easier to read than the rest of this book which was a bit of a blessing as I was feeling quite fed up with it by then.
I personally think that it is a case of style over substance in some respects. I found myself drifting off and having to force myself to concentrate because it just did not grip me. I found this book incredibly hard to actually get into and I have to say I considered giving up on it on a number of occasions, this is virtually unheard of for me.
It really irked me how it shifted back and forth between the two threads, just when you thought it was going somewhere with Brik and Rora you would be snapped back into the other narrative and personally I found this frustrating. I could not tell whether this was deliberate or not but I did think that the timing of where it switched was awkward at best and clumsy at worst. For me as a reader it was just plain frustrating and lessened my resolve to plough on.
I have to admit that this book was hard work to complete and not half as enjoyable as I was expecting. This was a real shame. I found it very difficult to have any sympathy for Brik as the main protagonist and in fact by the end I was thinking he was a bit pathetic for seemingly blaming his wife for why he has lost his identity.
I could not help finding this book a tad pretentious and over egged by flowery language. Whilst Hemon's grasp of English is mighty impressive (and outshines many author's for whom it is a first language) at times it seemed wearisome to have to concentrate so hard on what was actually being said underneath the heaps of flowery prose.
I actually thought the ending was puzzling and quite awful, rather than tying up loose ends I felt incredibly let down by what seemed like a cop out, I had too many questions left unanswered.
I found this book hard work and really had to persevere to get to the end. I may well revisit it as I have a feeling this is one of those books you need to ready a few times to understand fully, maybe I was not in the right frame of mind for it. However, after finishing it I did a bit of digging and found that opinion does seem to be divided between those who think it is a work of genius and those who, like me, found it something of a let down. You should definitely make your mind up for yourself, I think this is a marmite novel.
For me I am very glad I did not take this away as a holiday book, it is in no way conducive to relaxing and is far too much like hard work to be enjoyed on a sun lounger!