What’s a Good Book Among Friends?

Books of my choice are those with great, intelligent plots, original, full of subtle and detailed observations.

Guest Blog from Branka Cubrila

I am a good reader: from the first paragraph, I know what I am faced with – a good read, well written with a plot that I would easily narrate myself if I first came up with such an idea, or a read that after a couple of sentences I know I’ll give a miss. A book I will read must be intelligently and beautifully written, with personal, wise observations of life in general, the protagonist’s life and philosophy in particular.

I don’t read nor do I write about wizards, supernatural heroes, horror stories, vampires, zombies or about sexual scandals.

Books of my choice are those with great, intelligent plots, original, full of subtle and detailed observations, deep emotions entangled with a sense for maturity and advancement of the human condition, mind and heart.

Where is this ever-flowing river of ideas a writer comes to dip their mind in? Where can they drink from the source where all the stories are floating freely to be collected, written down, retold, re-written and remembered?

Sometimes a family member shares a story that was woven in the history of the family fabric, and we remember it, for it was stored in our genes, or sometimes the one who whispers the facts is an invisible one who has the story or the key to the treasure of a collective unconscious.

Here, I am going to explore those ideas connecting two books: Fiume the Lost River, the book I wrote twice, in 1997 in Croatian, and after almost twenty years (in 2014) I translated it into English, and the other book – News of Our Loved Ones, by Abigail de Witt, an American author, with dual citizenship (French), as she likes to say.

Out of fairness and politeness, I should write first about Abigail’s book, but to understand my point better, I shall start with Fiume – the Lost River.

After the civil war broke out in ex-Yugoslavia, I moved from Rijeka (in Italian known as Fiume) to Sydney, Australia. With my suitcases where I carried some of my dearest belongings, and in my mind, heart and soul, I took personal memories and many untold stories about that particular place where I grew up and heard lots of stories about WW2, about life under the fascist regimes, about the exodus of many Italians, but above all I witnessed the beginning of the Yugoslav civil war in the nineties and the exodus of many.

The heroine of my book, Beatrice Szabo, left her home (Fiume) in the aftermath of WW2 and after a short period in Vienna, where she married a young Jew, she left it in haste as Europe was entangled in the total madness of xenophobia, hatred and chaos. This was drawn from my own experience of leaving Croatia in the 90s where the same sentiments resurfaced.

I wrote that book as justice to the many victims of various wars who were displaced and found themselves in faraway lands, among different people, mentalities and laws, unhappy, unsettled, mostly unwelcomed by the xenophobic locals. As I lived in Australia at the time of writing it, none of the Australian publishers wanted to publish this book unless I edited out the chapter “Bianca” where my character tells her experiences of being treated as someone who shouldn’t have come uninvited to ‘someone’s else’s land’. There were two publishers who liked the book and begged me to reconsider and re-write the chapter or ‘edit it out’, promising to make it a ‘successful novel’.

I had never compromised as I couldn’t write on demand and didn’t want to please someone’s personal taste and current fashion. I couldn’t comprehend the level of small-mindedness and suppression of truth as seen by a non-local. Several years later, in 2014, an American publisher (Speaking Volumes) published the book exactly the way it was originally written.

I will discuss more about it later as for now let me tell the story of how I came across Abigail de Witt’s book. Simply – social media, which I, more often than not, sincerely dislike.

Sometimes, some authors ask me to read their book, and I do if I like the opening sentence or the first paragraph. I don’t offer or ask others to read any of my books – if they need to read it, they’ll find it. My task is to write, not to chase or entertain people on Instagram (or any other platform).

An author followed me, I looked at the profile, Abigail de Witt, and I followed back. We started liking each other’s posts, and I noticed the striking likeness of the covers of our books: a city in ruins, a faceless young woman, a fire and smoke.

After a short, friendly correspondence, we agreed to exchange our books. Abigail was keen to read my memoir The Mosaic of the Broken Soul which I sent off, and a week later I received  News of Our Loved Ones and Lili in my mailbox. The same evening, I started reading News of Our Loved Ones.

The main heroine, Geneviève Delasalla has been living with her family in Normandy (Caen) under Nazi occupation watching daily as their Jewish neighbours are arrested and taken away. Geneviève moves to Paris to audition for the National Conservatory thus her life is spared. She meets and marries an American musician and moves to the US but frequently returns to France with her children, as life in the States proves to be too alien for the French woman, and above all, she couldn’t connect with her husband on a deeper level as he never had the same depth she had. He was satisfied with his life, sitting alone in the shed behind their house working odd hours. Therefore, she never made a connection with life in the USA, the people and lifestyle of endless visits to the aesthetically unappealing shopping malls that offered cheap food and goods.

Well, just like Beatrice Szabo in Australia, who found herself among the culture of consumerism, shopping malls and people who were interested in simple things, wanting to meet their basic needs, to own a house and ultimately to win on the horses!

Both heroines are very strong-minded and strong-willed women with the distinct need for culture and sophistication they inherently carried with ease and spontaneity;  both are faced with many challenges, from speaking a language that never rolled easily off the tongue to the only entertainment those big countries, back then, offered – the shopping malls. Surely, the first generation of migrants pays the biggest price.

The other coincidence was that both women, Beatrice and Geneviève, married Jews, where we point out that unbearable pain of being Jewish (or association with one) during WW2. Beatrice marries a Viennese Jew, David Goldberg, to divorce him during the war to be eventually reunited with him in Sydney some years later by a chance encounter, just like Geneviève meets the young neighbour, Rèmy Schwartz, a Jew, who left Caen to hide himself in Paris, believing the big city was the safer place to hide. They became life-long lovers, whilst Beatrice keeps David Goldberg in her life as her best friend and business adviser.

My story is a fictional story and so are the characters, but as I pointed out earlier, I took with me many stories (from family and family friends alike) that somehow, in lonely times in my early days in Sydney, started talking to me and making sense like never before.

When I first published the book (in Croatian, 1999) many friends asked me, back in Rijeka, if I knew their personal family history and retold it in this book.

As I kept on reading Abigail’s book, the emotions, sensibility and her choice of characters, spoke to me as they perfectly echoed my own emotions and sensibility whilst I was writing my book, in my lonely days in Sydney many years ago.

Polly Miller, Geneviève’s youngest child reflects Abigail’s feelings as someone who was born into two different cultures, and thus not able to find her real home easily, as home was everywhere and nowhere because being born and brought up in two different cultures simultaneously brought to a young child the confusion of belonging or lack thereof: she was not completely American as her mother kept her French culture alive in the house as much as she could, yet when Polly visited Paris, she was a stranger – an American cousin laughed at by kids: at her choice of clothes, her clumsy words, even her odd habits and needs.

Polly Miller is the closest character to the author, just as I experienced with my own daughter who was born and grew up in Sydney, coming ‘home’ to Rijeka, where she never really felt at home, as ‘we people’ from overseas are always between two cultures, two worlds and with some conflicting needs.

Apart from other, more vital reasons why I write, I write sometimes a book (like the last one, Dethroned) because I have a need to read something well-written, interesting, honest, mind provoking, soul-enriching and eye-opening; something psychological, even philosophical, but it is not always easy to pick the right book. When I started reading News of Our Loved Ones, I knew I found the book I’d like to read, and as I continued reading it, I smiled all along, thinking – how could she come up with such a similar story written in a similar style, yet we never met nor do we share the same background?

Needless to say, we exchanged more books with mutual pleasure. The next book on my list is Lili, but I’ll save that for the next time.

Please click HERE to find Fiume–The Lost River on Amazon.

Please click HERE to find News Of Our Loved Ones on Amazon.

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