This book wasn’t what I expected but I appreciated Stefanovic’s unique perspective. I especially liked that this book gave me a much better understanding of what happened in Serbia in the 1990’s, with a focus more on the politics of Slobodan Milosevic’s reign. I’ve read other books, like Girl At War and The Unquiet Dead, which focus much more on the horrific killings and rapes. This book was surprisingly removed from all that. Instead, we get Stefanovic’s perspective of being a child forced to grow up in a country not her own.
As a memoir, Stefanovic tells her own story chronologically, beginning with her birth in Serbia to educated parents, and their decision to move to Australia with her and her baby sister. Stefanovic writes of feeling like an outsider in these years, and then just when she’s beginning to adjust and make friends, her family moves back to Serbia. And several years later, they move back to Australia when it is clear that Milosevic is waging war against Bosnia and Croatia. When they return to Australia, her father’s employer moves them to a completely different place, a remote area near Adelaide, so except for the language they’ve basically moved to another country. Each time Sofija visits her home country, she finds it different from how she remembered. No one place ever feels like home.
What’s a little unsettling about this book is that the political unrest of former Yugoslavia in the 90’s is filtered through the lens of a child. Stefanovic’s focus isn’t on the horrible things that are happening to people, unless something happens to one of her friends directly. Rather, she’s focused on trying to understand what’s happening and how it impacts her and her family. For example, she writes about her parents’ conflicting feelings about living in Australia (her mother hates it and wants to return to Serbia). She writes about trying to learn a new language and fit in with the Australian kids, while still maintaining some loyalty to her homeland. She writes about the political discussions she hears from her parents, and as she gets older, her own participation in the protests against the UN bombing of Serbia.
Yet she also seems fairly untouched by the true nature of what’s happening. There’s one part of the book where she’s hearing the stories told by Bosnian refugees, and I thought this would be where she’d describe coming to understand the horror of the genocide and rapes. But instead she makes it about her own interest in writing about her country.
Still, there’s a genuineness to Sofija’s writing that I found refreshing. She didn’t experience those events so she can’t really write about them and doesn’t try. She can only, after all, write her own story. And as she explains at one point, we are always far more affected by the things that happen to ourselves and our loved ones, than we are by things that happen far away.
Her story actually reminded me of my father’s own childhood. Born in Czechoslovakia right before the Holocaust, he grew up in Israel and came to the U.S. as a young adult. He survived the Holocaust but didn’t experience it, and it must have been hard for him to adjust to a new country and culture, twice. He also knows something about coming from a country that technically, no longer exists.
There’s a warmth and humor to the writing that kept me engaged throughout, with a thoughtful balance of the big issues and small things that matter. All in all, I really enjoyed and appreciated this tale of growing up in a strange place and figuring out who you are, not just where you come from.
Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from NetGalley and publisher Atria Books. This book published April 17, 2018.