book jacket: In the spring of 1992, Irena Zaric is a star on her Sarajevo
high school basketball team, a tough, funny teenager who has taught her parrot,
Pretty Bird, to do a decent imitation of a ball hitting a hoop. Irena wears her
hair short like k.d. lang's, and she loves Madonna, Michael Jordan, and Johnny
Depp. But while Irena rocks out and shoots baskets with her friends, her beloved
city has become a battleground. When the violence and terror of "ethnic
cleansing" against Muslims begins, Irena and her family, brutalized by Serb
soldiers, flee for safety across the river that divides the city.
If once Irena knew of war only from movies and history books, now she knows its reality. She steals from the dead to buy food. She scuttles under windows in her own home to dodge bullets. She risks her life to communicate with an old Serb school friend and teammate. Even Pretty Bird has started to mimic the sizzle of mortar fire.
In a city starved for work, a former assistant principal offers Irena a vague job, "duties as assigned," which she accepts. She begins by sweeping floors, but soon, under the tutelage of a cast of rogues and heroes, she learns to be a sniper, biding her time, never returning to the same perch, and searching her targets for the "mist" that marks a successful shot. Ultimately, Irena's new vocation will lead to complex and cataclysmic consequences for herself and those she loves.
Comment: Before the impact of what I was seeing started to diminish with repetition, I recollect being struck quite strongly by the news footage coming out of the "Former Yugoslavia" in 1992 - by the realization that merely by the extreme good fortune of birth, I was living a comfortable life in England (at the time) while our European neighbors were hacking each other to death. (Europe is a small place relative to the USA, and although there are a number of countries between England and Yugoslavia, the distance between London and Sarajevo, as the crow flies, is about the same as between New York and Chicago.) Obviously I'd seen wars on the TV before, but somehow they'd always seemed farther away - either historically or geographically - but here was a war on my doorstep being fought between people who looked pretty much like me, which brought home the realization of how extremely fortunate I was (and still am) to have lived all my life in stable democracies - and how that it is something never, ever, to take for granted.
Reading Pretty Birds brought these thoughts home once more. Irena is interested in the minutiae of her life - her place on the basketball team, international pop stars and boyfriends - a typical teenager; but then her life is turned on its head by political events that she's barely been aware of. Scott Simon, through his first hand experience of the siege, brings the people and the events to life in this extremely strong first novel. I recommend it to all adults, and also for older teens.
This review was originally published in July 2005, and has been updated for the May 2006 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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