Book Review: How to Be a Kosovan Bride

How to Be a Kosovan Bride, by Naomi Hamill, follows the trajectory of two young women living in newly liberated but still deeply traditional, contemporary Kosovo. Both enter into marriages sanctioned by their respective families while other girls their age continue with school. One is warmly welcomed by her in-laws but discovers that life as a wife is not as satisfying as she had hoped. The other becomes a Returned Girl, rejected when her husband accuses her of lying about her virginity.

The Returned Girl determines that she will not accept a marriage to a lesser man just for the sake of form. Instead she will pick up her studies and, despite the skewed entry system, try for university. Her family support her efforts, ignoring the looks and comments from their local community.

The Kosovan Wife quickly falls pregnant, much to the delight of her husband and his parents with whom they live. They regard her as a good girl, believing their son has made an excellent choice. The Kosovan Wife is grateful that, for now at least, he leaves her alone.

Interwoven with the lives of these two women are related tales of the previous generation during the Kosovo War. Many are still haunted by the cruelties inflicted by the occupying soldiers from whom they fled into the mountains, where they struggled to survive the hunger and cold. Those who returned often found that their homes had been destroyed. Although wishing to move forward, the older generation’s hopes for the future are at odds with many of the young women’s dreams of personal freedom, which traditional living precludes.

The Returned Girl is much taken by the idea of life in London. University offers her the chance to meet foreigners and secretly, scandalously, she dates boys her family do not know. She acquires an interest in politics. She starts to write down her relatives’ stories from the war.

The Kosovan Wife is also writing, as a means to escape the increasing unhappiness of her married life. She retells an old folk tale in which a good woman is wronged by a series of men. Unlike the Kosovan Wife’s experiences, these men are taken to task for their behaviour and thereby gain understanding.

The rhythm and form of the narrative quietly capture the difficulties to be faced when female aspiration stretches beyond the widely accepted limitations of weddings, babies and home. Whatever path taken, the glimpsed alternatives bring into question choices made. Tradition and poverty prove as constricting to women as closed borders.

This subtle exploration of the complexities of life in newly liberated Kosovo is presented in nuanced, engaging prose. A modern history told through its people. An intelligent, rewarding story.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

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Book Review: Hold Still

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Hold Still, by Tim Adler, took some time to hook me but, once it did, had to be finished in a sitting. It is a thriller based around a mafia style organisation controlling brothels and drug dealers in the UK. The proceeds enable the ruling family to finance their local politicians, bribe the supposed law enforcement organisations, and orchestrate terrorist arms deals worldwide.

The protagonist is a young, English woman named Kate who travels to Albania with her husband, Paul, for a family funeral. Paul has been preoccupied with business issues and is constantly on his phone. Kate tries to get him to confide in her but to no avail. Relaxing in their hotel room after the wake Kate takes a photograph of her husband as he wanders towards their balcony after receiving a text message. Moments later he is dead on the street, an apparent suicide.

Naturally Kate is distraught. She studies photographs taken before the event and finds inconsistencies, shadows in the pixels that suggest all may not be as it seems. When the local police close their investigation she flies home but continues to worry at the flimsy evidence she has amassed. Those she confides in advise her to grieve and learn to accept her loss. Kate is not so easily comforted.

In the first half of the book I was niggled by elements of the narrative structure including a couple of continuity errors. Colin, a business associate, is described as being paralysed from the neck down yet he “pulled open a desk drawer” and “handed her the business card with his better arm.” Kate arranges a meeting with him on Tuesday but this happens on Wednesday. These seemed avoidable irritations. By the second half of the book the pace had picked up and I was so caught in the web of intrigue, the writing style no longer snagged my concentration.

As with many thrillers, to enjoy the plot development it is necessary to allow the author a degree of literary licence. Kate is portrayed as an ordinary women thrown into extraordinary circumstances who discovers a resolve and fortitude it is hard to comprehend. However, in going along with the action we can enjoy a fast moving, terrifying series of events that are remarkable for having a female at the helm rather than the usual male. It makes a gratifying change.

Kate’s investigations put her in dangerous situations which take her across Europe. She discovers that strangers are rarely willing to intervene in altercations. She must work out who she can trust, and make difficult decisions about who she wants to be.

What struck me about the plot was the danger of removing hope. For a free society to thrive, for law and order to prevail, citizens must have a stake in what they are working for, something they care about. Take that away and there is no reason for compliance. If all that is valued is monetary gain anarchy will prevail. There will always be sadists looking for gratification, a danger to all if beyond control.

The denouement was well put together; Kate’s unlikely presence in certain places acknowledged. It was a satisfactory tying together of loose ends with a nod to a potential future.

For those who like action thrillers this is an intriguing, sometimes hair-raising read. The inclusion of data mining and the use of the dark web provide food for thought for all.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Urbane Publications.