Louis de Bernières is the go-to guy if you like richly told "big" books such as Corelli's Mandolin and Birds Without Wings—sweeping stories, filled with colorful characters and told from multiple points of view. His new book is not big—in fact, it is little more than a novella—and the multiplicity of voices with which the narrative unwinds has been reduced to just two. Still, A Partisan's Daughter is vintage de Bernières: a story of impossible love, ethnic conflict and the whims of history, played out through the inevitable fates of ordinary, if compelling characters.
These characters are Chris and Roza. He's a 40-year-old English pharmaceuticals salesman, locked in a loveless suburban marriage; she's an undocumented Yugoslav girl, scraping out an existence amid the economic hardship of pre-Thatcher 1970s London. They meet when, on an impulse—and for the first time in his life—Chris approaches a girl he believes to be a streetwalker. Roza protests she is not a "working girl," but she accepts a ride from him because she judges him, rightly, to be safe and kind. Before they part, she admits that she was once a prostitute, and charged 500 pounds for her services. Obsessed with the idea of sleeping with her, Chris begins to squirrel away money, but in the meantime he regularly visits Roza as friend rather than client, enjoying her company and listening to her stories.
They are vibrant, sometimes disturbing stories of her childhood near Belgrade, as well as her misadventures after she escaped to England. Roza shocks Chris with the revelation that she once seduced her father, who was a comrade of Tito, and details her rape at the hands of a British thug. But Chris, like readers of the novel, is never quite sure when Roza is telling the truth or when she is weaving a tale to make herself more fascinating—to this humdrum man who so obviously adores her, and to herself.
De Bernières, like Roza, knows how to construct a captivating narrative, and A Partisan's Daughter is a graceful, persuasive exploration of boundless storytelling and the limits of love.