Shards is the debut novel from transplanted Bosnian Ismet Prcic, and it’s a good one. Written in a fractured style that lives up to its title, Shards moves between Bosnia’s war-torn hellscapes and the more quiet tortures of Edinburgh and California, from the early ‘90s to several years after the war has ended.
Narrative structure shifts too, with notebook entries swapping places with letters home, only to be replaced by straightforward prose. Characters are equally changeable, as the narrator—one Ismet Prcic, hmm—routinely exchanges protagonist duties with another man named Mustafa, who may have a direct bearing on Ismet’s life. Or not. This is one of those books when very little is entirely clear.
All of which might make Shards sound like some painful literary slog, one of those books that you read for the same reason you take vitamins: because it’s good for you. But the fact is, the novel is a quick read if at times a painful one, and Prcic has the good sense to ground individual scenes in a bed of compelling, sensual detail. There are times, perhaps, when the reader might think, “I wonder what this chapter has to do with the last one,” but few if any moments when s/he might think, “Where the hell am I and what am I doing here?”
The book is so fragmented that to talk of a narrative arc is intrinsically suspect, but to the extent that there is an arc, it concerns the narrator’s early life in Bosnia and susbsequent escape as war breaks out. Ismet arrives in California as the book opens, so there is not a huge amount of suspense later, as the time shifts back to life in his troubled homeland: we know he is going to escape. But does escape bring any sort of measurable improvement in his life? That remains an open question.
Prcic’s prose is effective both at delineating the psychological nuances of his characters, and the sometimes-dodgy circumstances of the outside world. He succinctly summarizes the events leading to Yugoslavia’s ‘90s bloodbath: “Ancient grudges that had lain dormant for some time awakened full-grown and rested, and new pillagers, while waiting for their beards to grow, cast away their red stars and pinned the hateful emblems of their fathers back on their coats and here they came again, with crunchy boots and swearwords.”
Because Prcic is a Bosnian Muslim and so are most of his characters, it’s tempting to see this description as applying specifically to the Serbs, who so viciously attacked their Muslim countrymen. But one universal truth of war is that senselessness and brutality can be claimed by all sides, and there are moments in this book to remind us of that.
Once war starts, the landscape itself seems to reflect its hopelessness. “The bridge was an oppressive, parallelogram-shaped coffin of solid cement and steel, spanning the emaciated, shivering river at an angle. Its stone guardians, those identical quadruplets, stood forever on the corners, facing away from one another, slumped under the weight of light they were designed to deliver.” The language of war is everywhere: “Forsaken sedans with tarps thrown over them looked like full body bags. It all looked like stock footage from a late-night History Channel documentary about some sad thing that happened elsewhere a long time ago.”
Needless to say, the war and its attendent anxieties and deprivations affect the characters most of all. When exploding fireworks send the narrator diving for cover, he only slowly realizes that in Edinburgh, such dangers as he is used to are uncommon. Of his companions, the narrator tells us, “Asmir and the musicians were older. They remembered with fully formed adult bodies and minds life before the war. Before chaos, they’d known order, before senselessness, sense… But, if you were forged in the chaos, then there was no return. There was no escape. To you chaos was normalcy.”
Perhaps all this makes the novel seem relentlessly grim. That’s unfair. Grim it is, but relentless it is not. There is a strain of dark humor running throughout, and an elastic joy in storytelling and linguistic expression that prevents this from being a simple recitation of atrocities and pain. There is a love story or two in here as well, and some family drama, and—as mentioned—the ongoing question of how, exactly, the pieces all fit together.
Ultimately, the pieces do fit, because the author provides enough of a narrative for the reader to plug those pieces into the overarching story. Shards is not a cheery book, but it is a well-written and thought-provoking one. Drama comes not only from the fraught subject matter but also from the response of its very realistic characters who are trapped within its nightmarish world. It is not Yugoslavia For Dummies, nor does it try to be. The story it tells is as unique and individual as the author who penned it.