A Partisan's Daughter
by Louis De Bernieres
Reviewed by Rayyan Al-Shawaf
San Antonio Express News
Louis de Bernieres, best known for his historical novels Corelli's Mandolin and Birds Without Wings, returns with a more contemporary story set in his native United Kingdom.
A Partisan's Daughter is narrated alternately by Chris, an aged British widower, and Roza, a woman of uncertain origin; long separated, the two recount a strange relationship that ended badly years ago. The result is a largely unsatisfying exploration of loneliness buoyed only by moments of poignancy or humor, as well as an admittedly haunting ending.
It all begins one night in London in the late 1970s, when unhappily married Chris discovers that the woman he has just solicited for sex is not, in fact, a prostitute. Tickled by Chris' acute embarrassment, the woman teases him by claiming that she used to be a high-priced sex worker but no longer. Today, recalling the exchange, Roza muses, "I didn't know it at the time, but it was the most destructive thing I could have told him."
Indeed, A Partisan's Daughter is in part a cautionary parable about the power of storytelling; spinning fanciful tales that exoticize our humdrum lives may ultimately prove our undoing.
A sheepish Chris readily agrees to give Roza a ride home and drops her off in the run-down section of town where she lives. Intemperately attracted to this "princess perched on a dungheap" who speaks English with what appears to be an Eastern European accent, Chris returns a few weeks later to take Roza up on her offer of coffee.
She sits him down in her hovel and tells him that she is a Serb from Yugoslavia and that her father was a partisan who fought alongside Tito against the Nazis in World War II. Regaling the besotted Chris with colorful stories about her past becomes a frequent ritual and the only spark in his dreary life.
A nebbish to his very core, Chris occasionally makes delightfully self-deprecating statements reminiscent of vintage Woody Allen: "I wouldn't want to be a partisan unless I got weekends off and all missions were optional."
Absent such quips, however, and we are left with a character disturbingly devoid of personality. In fact, de Bernieres may have deliberately employed a pyrrhic literary strategy that builds up one character at the expense of another, accentuating Roza's complexity and perceived exoticism by miring Chris in stereotypes of the bland Englishman.
Known for enriching his novels with meticulous historical detail, it is perhaps unsurprising that de Bernieres should weave Yugoslavia's tortuous saga into A Partisan's Daughter. Roza entertains Chris largely by recounting her supposed experiences in the ill-fated Balkan country. Yet ironically, it is precisely this aspect of the novel that proves superfluous.
Unlike the bit about her past as a prostitute, Roza's Yugoslav stories bear no direct relation to the novel's plot; the act of storytelling is what matters. Should the reader initially miss this obvious point, de Bernieres puts it across in didactic fashion. As Roza's roommate explains to a distraught Chris in the wake of her departure, "People tell stories to make themselves more interesting ... If Roza kept you intrigued it was because she wanted you to keep coming back."
Essentially, a completely different set of tales could be substituted for those relating Roza's Yugoslav adventures -- all the more so for the boring ones -- without affecting the novel's outcome.
Realizing this casts de Bernieres' decision to write about Yugoslavia in a harsh light; instead of appearing effortlessly erudite, the author comes off as showy and given to gratuitous displays of geo-historical knowledge.
Although A Partisan's Daughter is partly redeemed by de Bernieres' sensitive treatment of the rupture between Chris and Roza, one cannot help wishing that the author had focused more on the relationship between his protagonists rather than the outlandish topics of their one-way conversations.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a journalist and critic who lives in Beirut.