I enjoyed Ana’s debut short story collection Flower Thieves last year, and I’ve been looking forward to more. While Flower Thieves narrated stories from Ana’s childhood in small-town Serbia, Places is diverse in setting, story, and character. These nineteen stories take the reader from Serbia to Bali, Vienna to Cassino.
A grieving widow hears beautiful piano music from a mysterious source. A Balinese child develops a special relationship with the moon, gets mocked by villagers, but shows a loving spirit wise beyond her years. Sundew plants grappling with devastating pollution call on Mother Earth’s help, but the humans still aren’t listening. A girl and her mother struggle under the thumb of a psychopath. A beggar-child seeks one evening of solace at any cost. A river witnesses the wartime devastation of its favourite village, and helps it to rejuvenate.
Each of these stories is simple in the telling, and economical with words – but each evokes a different geographical and emotional landscape.
Easy to read, these stories are hard to forget. A child could understand these stories, but even the maturest reader will feel softer, kinder, and better having read them. This conjunction occurs very rarely in fiction.
Like Ana’s previous writing, Places reveals narrative fluency, goodnatured humour, an eye for detail, a curious spirit, and a loving heart. Many books show their author to be a good writer. Places does that. But Places also shows its author to be a good person. And that’s much rarer.
In “Cobblestones,” a young Serbian girl enjoys counting the cobblestones on her street. One summer, the cobblestones are replaced by asphalt:
“Three weeks at the seaside went by fast and when Mina returned home, she was flabbergasted. Her Sinisa Janic Street was gone. Something that resembled it was still there, but the cobblestones were gone. Instead of them, a layer of asphalt extended over the street and its darkcolored bituminous body distorted the whole area.
“Mina couldn’t stop her tears.”
“The Sundew” is narrated by a sundew, an insectivorous plant; this is a story of environmental degradation that eventually decimates the sundew population in southeast Serbia. “For ages, my ancestors inhabited the fields of South East Serbia, especially around small town Vlasotince, which comfortably sits in the valley divided by the Vlasina River. They all liked their life around this beautiful sleepy town and never thought that they would be in danger of extinction. We are small plants and we are carnivores. Unlike other plants we eat insects. And that has always made us special… Our shiny dresses, decorated by jelly drops, glisten in the sunlight. And the sunlight colors those dresses in pink, purple, orange, red or white. The sunlight is our friend. And it makes us smile, letting our juicy petals wide open.”
In “The Painting,” a young girl suspects that nefarious activities may be occurring in her own home. The focus of her suspicions is a painting that her stepfather has presented to her mother: “Borka had never liked that painting on the wall in the hall of their apartment. It was ominous and unfriendly. It had threatening colors that scared her and left an unpleasant impression. Almost a metallic taste in her mouth.”
“The River” is narrated by a river which develops a special relationship with the citizens of one town – Cassino, Italy – through which it flows. “I twined through the valley escaping endlessly the mountains and snow and searching for the warm breeze and birds’ song. My whirlpools became calmer, less angry and less hazardous. I had to leave my aquamarine dress in the mountains, one of my most beautiful garments, and put on my dark green skirt.”
The eponymous protagonist-narrator of “The Last Dervish” bewails the disappearance of his kind: “I am a rare bird. Almost extinct. There is no one to follow me and inherit my beliefs and practice. No one seems to want to experience the world in an ecstatic way anymore. Well, there are those who want to but they are afraid.” Dervishes, prosecuted in Turkey, flee to Iran; prosecuted there too. Ta re: persecution & killings of his kind.
In “A Pianist,” a young widow, Marina, moves to Vienna, hears mysterious music, and has her heart mended. She spends the story wondering about the origin of the music; then concludes that it doesn’t matter: “Eventually, Marina came to the conclusion that certain things should be left unexplained. In the end, she thought, life was a series of the unexplained. Maybe music, and the breaking and mending of her heart, connected her to untold people in this world.”
In “Snowflakes,” a girl in Budapest forced to beg to feed her family: “Carol loved evenings when the snowflakes fell down, the thin white crystals dancing elegantly down through the cold air. They were not in a rush to fall to the ground since they knew it meant their death. So at a leisurely pace they moved through the air, following the rhythm of the sleepy city and letting Carol enjoy the show.”
Buy Places here. Read in soft copy to save paper.