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Promised Virgins by Jeffrey Fleishman

Rhonda Dickey
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

The book's real strength lies in its ability to put you right there to witness what happens to people sucked into the world's many conflicts.

Promised Virgins

Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Subtitle: A Novel of Jihad
Author: Jeffrey Fleishman
Price: $24.95
Length: 264
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9781559708975
US publication date: 2009-02

Promised Virgins takes place in Kosovo on the eve of NATO bombings, "a few years before those planes sliced into the silver towers" in New York, as war was playing out, unbelievably, in Europe at the end of the last century. The story is told by Jay, a war correspondent and the veteran of enough conflicts to know that the human tragedy he records has to compete with a lot of media noise -- and doesn't have much of a shelf life, even if it manages to break through.

This particular vessel of tragedy, Kosovo, saw attempts in the '90s by the majority ethnic Albanians in the province to break away from the Yugoslav republic of Serbia. Serbian security forces in 1998 and 1999 killed an estimated 7,000 Kosovars, many of them women and children, Fleishman wrote then as a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter. NATO bombing against the Milosevic regime ended in the summer of 1999.

Jay and Alija, his young translator whom he loves, are on twin missions. The reporter wants to find and interview the "dateman", an Islamist with creepy bin Laden echoes who arrives in Kosovo "with money, maps, and ideas of something big", and who is trying to infiltrate his followers into the guerrilla effort. The translator wants to find her young brother, rumored to have joined the guerrilla fighters in the mountains, or something worse.

Promised Virgins creates a world so vivid and believable that it holds this irony: In modern, secular Europe, self-immolating Islamism can find a niche.

The novel's real theme could be the unbelievable, or maybe disbelief. As the Leopard, a lawyer turned guerrilla leader, says regarding the dateman: "We're not devout Muslims, we're European Muslims." But European order had been upended.

The characters are memorable: the flinty but damaged Alija; Milan, the Sarajevo sniper Jay met in a previous war who later passed through a psychiatric clinic and into playing jazz piano; Vijay, the funny, slick operator who is angling for a slot at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Fleishman's experience as a war correspondent pays off here: A reader feels the mountain cold, the drabness punctuated by mayhem, and the disconnect with the newsroom back home.

The few weak passages are in those references to back home. A rant about the talking heads on TV news takes up nearly a page; the point could have been made better with a sharp, quick line.

But Promised Virgins does what a good novel is supposed to do. It creates a real, textured, believable world, and it sweeps the reader along at a fast pace that nevertheless doesn't seem hurried. And it's clear that for the characters, what's real is the here and now, and their own memories, not what's happening in a prosperous, peaceful world away.

Fleishman's writing captures what war must be like -- a startling mix of the mundane, the extraordinary and the ominous: "The sky is autumn dusk, bright orange-yellow, retreating purple, streaks of sun against a gray template ... Ditches are cobwebbed in frost, and there's a chill in my feet. War will come in winter. Chapped hands and mortar shells, blood in the snow ..."

The ending isn't wholly surprising, but it is inevitable. And the real strength of Promised Virgins lies not in some stunning plot twist but in its ability to put you right there to witness what happens to people sucked into the world's many conflicts.

As Jay says, "There are so many tempests out there." And as he also notes, "the attention span for strange-sounding surnames and distant lands is enchantingly short."

Out of sight, out of mind. Until the next tempest comes into view.


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