There are 200 roses in Sarajevo, each are memorials made from concrete scars caused by mortar explosions and filled with red resin. Each rose on the pavement of the city marks where at least three people were killed during the siege of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1996.
My knowledge of the Balkans war in the 90s is sketchy to say the least.
I remember being aware of it, I remember seeing news reports. I’ve read some accounts of journalist’s experiences of reporting on it but if asked what it was about, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you with any degree of confidence.
I’ve seen reports of subsequent trials. I’ve seen Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadizic convicted of war crimes; I remember Slobodan Milosevic dying.
I know that 7000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were slaughtered in the Srebrenica massacre.
It was genocide, it was an atrocity, the very worst of humanity was once again on display. It was a war that happened in my lifetime in Europe and yet, it was a war and chapter of history that appears to have by and large been forgotten
Six years ago, I spent two weeks trekking around the Balkans with my husband and four friends and started slowly improving my knowledge and understanding of this dark chapter of our recent history.
Books have allowed me to do that, whether it be non-fiction or fiction like the Rose of Sarajevo by Ayse Kulin.
Nimeta is a married, mother of two living in Sarajevo working as a television journalist. While covering a protest in Zagreb, she meets Stefan and begins an affair. At this protest a little-known politician named Slobodan Milosevic delivers a speech that fans the flames of Serbian nationalism.
Over the next few years, political tensions build, and war breaks out in the Balkans; Nimeta and her family are in the middle of the brutal conflict, their lives are forever altered.
This isn’t an easy read. There are horrific scenes in this book, it does not shy away from the brutality of war and rightly so, we have a responsibility to understand history and remember the victims and that means learning about what really happened, we simply can’t divert our eyes from history, no matter how dark it is.
Admittedly, I did struggle with the early parts of this book, I did wonder if something had been lost in the translation.
I couldn’t warm to Nimeta. She wasn’t a likeable character; she felt flat, in fact none of the characters were particularly likeable; they were all flawed, which made the fictional side of this novel more realistic I suppose after all we’re all flawed.
Nimeta working as a journalist meant that Kulin was able to weave in the historical facts and politics of the war without it feeling like there was a break in the narrative of the characters. It made sense for Nimeta to be having conversations about current affairs and the background. It made it easier for me to understand follow an incredibly complex conflict without it feeling as though I’d picked up a history textbook, though I did have to consult google on a few things early on.
As I got a grasp on the different ethnicities of the Balkans and the decent into war, a compelling story started to emerge. A story of resilience during a shameful part of European history, a story about a woman trying to keep it together and stay strong for her family despite the horrific circumstances. It was a story that I was invested in.
And then….it just ended.
And when I say just ended, I mean just ended….in the middle of a war.
And I’m still exasperated by how this book just ended three weeks later.
I thought I was missing the final third of the book; I was not.
I needed more. I needed to know more about how the siege of Sarajevo and the Balkans war was ended. I needed to know what happened to Nimeta and her family.
I wouldn’t say don’t read it, for me, it filled in a lot of gaps in my 90s European history – the reason I bought it the first place, so job done – but be prepared for a bit of a hit and miss read.
After a slow start, I enjoyed this book, I understood the history and while I didn’t really love the characters, I came to understand their motivations and liked them, I was gripped.
I absolutely hated the ending, I mean really hated it, I can see what Kulin was doing with the final line, but it left me completely unsatisfied and wanting more.
This is me asking Ayse Kulin for a sequel, please.
Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm