Flower Thieves is a collection of thirty-four short stories functioning as a memoir of a childhood in late twentieth-century rural Serbia. These stories follow the author’s immediate and extended family, friends, and adventures around the seasons from childhood to adolescence. Flower Thieves locates a panoply of colourful characters in idyllic settings. The narratives, furnished primarily by family festive rituals and small-scale adventures, are narrated with refreshing liveliness, humour, and simplicity.
Recurring characters include the narrator, Lena; her younger, Marina; their parents, and their paternal grandmother, Nana, who lives with them; their maternal grandmother, Gordana; and Uncle Bojan, a pigeon-keeping artist-cum-teacher. The settings are generally confined to the village, but occasionally venture into the countryside. Many stories are structured around festivals or secular events: from brewing a potent liquor (“Rakija”) to celebrating Easter and All Souls’ Day, Serbian-style.
Family and community get involved, with results that entertain or edify the children. In “Rakija,” the annual brewing process invariably involves liberal tasting; narrator Lena, watching the tipsy grownups laughing and disporting themselves, reflects: “And those were probably the moments when I loved the grownups the most.” Festivals bring the closely-bound family even closer together: “Easter in Serbia brings a lot of coloured eggs and beautiful weather. It comes on the wings of spring, and colours the days in the hues of [the] rainbow. And that rainbow is the basketful of Easter eggs that every family has on the table in the living-room.”
As close-knit as the family is, the community is no less so. As an Indian raised in a nuclear family in the big city, a stranger from even my next-door neighbours – I was pleasantly surprised to read about a setting where adults discipline, without fear and with love, each other’s children. In “Flower Thieves,” narrator Lena and some friends ravage neighbour Auntie Nada’s beautiful garden; Auntie Nada complains to the children’s parents, who allow her to decide their punishment. This sharing of parental discipline across families is a refreshing hark-back to the days in which, all over the world, the tough work of raising and civilising children was communally shared.
Over the course of these thirty-four bite-sized stories, portraits emerge of characters well-distinguished, drawn with broad but effective brushstrokes. Younger sister Marina is rebellious, often courting trouble: earning a stomach-upset from bolting too many sarma (dumplings) in “Sarma”; stealing kittens from the children of a visiting circus in “Stolen Kittens”; taking too many rides on a Ferris wheel in “Circus”; violating the narrator’s privacy in “Magic Box”; and accidentally destroying the narrator’s doll in “Broken Leg.”
Perhaps the book’s most colourful character is Grandma Gordana: a freethinking feminist who declares men are useless, yet takes excellent care of her domestically helpless husband; an amateur and effective herbalist who cures her fellow-villagers gratis; a self-taught biologist who trains narrator Lena in taxidermy. Grandma Gordana is kindhearted and outspoken, even challenging the clergy’s wrongheaded opinions.
Minor characters also make colourful cameos: Uncle Bojan meticulously gives each of his pairs of breed pigeons its ideal conditions (“Pigeons”), and executes a well-intentioned conspiracy with unexpected consequences (“Deservedly Unrewarded”). The village priest, going the rounds on festival-day, performing a ceremony for every household in “Zadusnice (Serbian All Souls’ Day),” gets tipsy on his grateful parishioners’ liquid tips: “The priest, in the meantime, staggered to the next grave, swaying a little. Too much rakija took its toll on his body. But we knew that he would probably manage to finish his job that day. No matter how many shots of rakija he drank, his feet didn’t fail him. Even though his voice did, since his prayer was more mumbling than praying.”
The descriptions of various festive rituals over several stories gets slightly tedious, but remain creditably succinct. Rustic excursions relieve these stories’ landscape: “The Man And The River” narrates Lena’s father’s tussle with a big fish; the annual wine harvest (“The Vineyard”) offers the children an excuse to bolt grapes and take several open-air naps between languid bouts of work, while the grownups labour efficiently in the autumn heat; and a shepherd ancestor faces off with a wolf at dusk (“The Wolf’s Tooth”). These stories suggest a glint of peril in Flower Thieves’ otherwise tranquil landscape. “The Civil War” traces Lena’s father’s brief service in the Bosnian War, and its unspoken effects on his psyche. “Unwanted First Kiss” narrates Lena’s complex feelings and events around her first crush: who subsequently overstepped his boundaries. This story hints at the complex feelings of victim-guilt surrounding cases of sexual harassment, whether gross or borderline.
Somewhat frustratingly, the stories do not fully explore the darker feelings that these events evoke in both characters and readers. Perhaps the writer was keen to keep the tone consistently light in a debut work: a reasonable aim, and one which has been honoured without violating narrative integrity. As it is, the reader gets a hint of the characters’ feelings and dilemmas, and can probably able to fill in the gaps himself. Vidosavljevic demonstrates talent and discretion in handling complex emotions with clarity and lightness.
Flower Thieves is emerging writer Ana Vidosavljevic’s second book in two years. In 2019, this Pushcart Prize-nominated writer debuted with Mermaids, a collection of short stories. Both books are by Adelaide Books, a small press.
Debut/emerging authors like Ana, and small presses like Adelaide, constitute two vital if often overlooked sources of good literature. Flower Thieves is a promising debut by a writer with an eye for character, a gentle humour, and a gift for simplicity: a reminder that a competent handling of basic elements makes for enjoyable storytelling. I look forward to reading more from Ana soon.