Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 27, 2022

Time and Tide in Sarajevo, by Bronwyn Birdsall

Time and tide wait for no man, attributed to Chaucer’s Prologue to the Clerk’s Tale but probably a proverb older than that, is a warning against procrastination.  It’s like seize the day, it commands us to be decisive and get on with things that need to be done.

In Bronwyn Birdsall’s compelling debut novel, however, decisive action is not a simple matter.  Time and Tide in Sarajevo is set in a city still recovering decades after the siege by Serbian forces during the Bosnian War and the Bosnian Genocide (1992-1995). After these years of atrocities the Dayton Accord was negotiated but that was not the end of the matter.  Wikipedia tells us that

The agreement has been criticized for creating ineffective and unwieldy political structures and entrenching the ethnic cleansing of the previous war.

In Birdsall’s story the city is suffering under the weight of the Accord and there is widespread distrust of politicians. Politics is an everyday concern, and the issues are very complex.  For an outsider, this means treading a careful path not to alienate the people on whom she depends for company, friendship and advice about negotiating everyday life.

Into this city fraught with tension enters Evelyn, a twenty-something woman escaping the tedium of her Australian job in admin by taking up a job teaching English overseas.

The blurb offers a spoiler-free summary of the novel’s trajectory:

Life in the city is tenuous yet welcoming. Dedicated to her work preparing high-schoolers for a scholarship that could change the course of their lives, Evelyn feels more herself here than at home in Australia. But when the teenage son of a local hero is stabbed and it seems like a cover-up will let the killer go free, Sarajevans take to the streets in protest.

When Evelyn discovers evidence that could ignite the volatile situation, putting both her students’ ambitions and her friendships at risk, she faces an impossible decision.

Evelyn’s circle includes some young men and some after-hours drinking pals, but the most important friend is the feisty Aida, a journalist in new media.  Aida is still suffering some PTSD after effects of the war, struggling to cope with home alarms that jolt them out of their sleep and remind her of the sirens warning of Serbian attacks during the siege. Her mother Vesna shares some of the trauma that Aida never talks about.

‘No one ever talks about the silence,’ Vesna continued. ‘It would be silent, and then gunshots, screams, footsteps. Imagine complete silence, but knowing at any moment a shell would hit, that someone you love…’ (p.137)

She also explains that Aida’s relationship with Nedim (one of the young men in their milieu) didn’t survive their ideological differences, so Evelyn is cautious about offending her friend.  It seems prudent not to mention that she’s moon-lighting as an English coach for Mirsad, a neoliberal politician much despised by Aida.  And that makes it very difficult to explain how she comes across a vital clue to the murder of the local hero’s son.

(The way Evelyn comes across this information is very cleverly handled, and so realistic for teachers struggling with out-of-date technology!)

Her decision about when and how to share her information is fraught.  The information she has will make the demonstrations more volatile, and her students who are caught up in it are about to sit an all important exam.

It’s no easy task for a novelist to deliver what may be an unfamiliar background to all this complexity.  Birdsall tackles it through her central character’s observations, just occasionally straying into slabs of commentary which are noticeably different to her lively style elsewhere in the novel:

They talked politics constantly, the way everyone else did, but always with a long-range context that made it both easier and harder for Evelyn to follow, tracing the paths that had led to the current political deadlock.  Sead, in particular, grieved what he saw as the massive failure of the city’s citizens to uphold the true value of the solidarity in the aftermath of the war, yielding instead to stifling conformity and nationalistic divides.  Especially upsetting to him was the way politicians constantly exploited emotions about the war to cement these divisions, for their own profit, when Bosnia and Herzegovina had always been considered the most integrated of the former Yugoslav republics. Sead regularly gave examples of what he dubbed the ‘new Sarajevo’, building up a mountain of evidence of the unwillingness of those in power to enact the constitutional reform needed to resolve the inertia.’  (p.35)

An editor could have suggested that this info might better have been more smoothly delivered through dialogue or maybe a pastiche of media reports.  Easy for me to suggest, not at all easy to do when writing about a situation that’s not exactly on the radar of most readers.

But this minor flaw doesn’t detract from an interesting and ambitious novel.

Just recently I read a novel set in postwar Italy: its sunny representation of harmony in Florence was somewhat implausible for a country recovering from the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini (1922-1943).  Time and Tide in Sarajevo is much more realistic.  It’s a vivid portrayal of the long-term fragility of peace in the aftermath of war and political upheaval.  People don’t just set aside old hostilities and then live happily ever after. Tension and resentments can lead to outbursts of temper (or worse) which may seem out of proportion to outsiders who are not nursing grievances, suffering PTSD or keen to see their society evolve into a better future.  Friends and family alike have to tread carefully so as not to open up old scabs.

Birdsall looks like an author to watch… I look forward to her next novel!

Theresa Smith liked it too. Se her review here and also Cass Moriarty’s here.

Author: Bronwyn Birdsall
Title: Time and Tide in Sarajevo
Cover design by Mika Tabata
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781922711670, pbk., 288 pages
Review copy courtesy of Affirm Press.


Responses

  1. I can appreciate how difficult it must be for an author to provide context and explanation of history/events without staying too much into exposition. The book I’m currently reading which is set in newly partitioned India strays too much down the path of explanation and it jars.

    Like

    • It’s tricky because the author can’t know how much the reader already knows. Plus, it’s always going to be how it was at a given moment in time, so it may not be the same now or even just a year later.
      What’s the one you’re reading?

      Like

  2. We pulled out the same quote, about the silence! Great minds, etc….

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    • #Snap, yes we did!
      It spoke to me because I remember my mother saying the same thing about the V2 rockets that came silently into London in the last futile German attack…

      Like

  3. Interesting, Lisa – I agree it can be difficult to build background information you need into a narrative, and perhaps dialogue might have worked better. But this does sound like a powerful read, and exploring the aftermath of a conflict is a good way to remind us of the long-term effects of violence.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes. But it’s also very good on the intricacies of fitting in to a society…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Like the sound of this one. I have several friends in the former Yugoslavia and yes, the aftermath of the war has not subsided for them just because the rest of the world has moved on.

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    • The rest of the world has a short memory.

      Like


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