Thursday, March 17, 2016

Country of Red Azaleas

Title:  Country of Red Azaleas
Author:  Domnica Radulescu
Publication Information:  Twelve. 2016. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1455590428 / 978-1455590421

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I started out in life under a Communist leader and a Hollywood name."

Favorite Quote:  "One is so often mistaken about what is real and what is not real. But a boot kicking you in your stomach in always real and you can't mistake it for not real. And you can't mistake the dead bodies strewn next to you for the images flickering on the walls of a cave."

The Country of Red Azaleas is the city of Sarajevo in the heart of what was once Yugoslavia and is now Bosnia and Herzegovina. Lara is a young girl growing up in Belgrade. She meets Marija, who moves to to her school from Sarajevo. The girls end up best friends, inseparable and sharing everything as they grow up.

Then, the war arrives with the fall of Communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union and of Yugoslavia. The girls find themselves as college students, making grand protest statements. Then, the war gets worse. Lara meets Mark, gets married, and leaves for America. Marija remains behind.

The book description creates a picture of a story of war. The beginning sets up two perspectives on the war - Lara who leaves, and Marija who stays. In this, the book reminds me of other books like Island of a Thousand Mirrors and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena that describe the atrocities of war and the victims on each side.

However, that is not where this book goes. I don't know quite what to make of this book. It takes a lot of dramatic turns, where the story seems to completely shift focus. At certain junctures of the book, I find myself flipping back asking where did that come from? It's hard to describe without giving the plot away. Let's just say not all the shifts flow and not all seem necessary.

This book is partly a story of war, but mostly, this book is Lara's story, told from her perspective. The book description also compares it to Elena Ferrante's work, which takes a similar approach in describing a friendship through the lens of one person's eyes.

This book though is not a complete story of friendship; it is more a biography of Lara's life, a story of love, marriage, parenthood, and a search for Marija. Most of all, this book is a story of Lara's discontent. For most of the book, Lara comes across as a desperately unhappy person. The ending reveals the root of her discontent, but it seems almost an afterthought. Unfortunately, for most of the book, Lara is not a sympathetic nor even a likable character. An unlikable main character can be at the heart of an amazing book, but in this case, Lara is not the character I want to know more about. Marija is.

Marija is the one who stays and lives through the war in Sarajevo. Her brutal journey is revealed in bits and pieces but again only through Lara's eyes. Comparatively, Marija comes across as the more stoic, stronger character of the two. It is her story that I want to know not really Lara's. That leaves me an unsatisfied and frustrated reader at the end of this book.

What keeps me reading though is the writing itself. The story does not capture me, but certain thoughts and expressions in the book capture my attention, such that I find myself highlighting the passage them and re-reading them. In all, the story of this book is a scattered, but the writing engages me enough to carry the story to its conclusion.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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