Bluebird: A Memoir by Vesna Maric

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Bluebird: A Memoir by Vesna Maric

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Natalie Baker
Reviewed by Natalie Baker
Summary: A poignant yet never pessimistic story of a Bosnian teenager's experience of coming to the UK as a refugee in the 1990s. A cast of larger-than-life characters and a pithy evocation of the well-meaning but often misguided way the refugees are treated make the book both enjoyable and thought-provoking.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Granta
ISBN: 978-1847080578

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When war broke out in the former Yugoslavia in 1992, Vesna Maric was a fairly typical teenager. For her, the war began on TV. However, it quickly filtered into all areas of her life, culminating in her being sent away, on a busload of women and children, to the Lake District. What was meant to be a short stay became a four-year long period of moving around the country until she was finally granted refugee status.

This is, first and foremost, a book of stories, descriptive rather than analytical, the author lets actions speak louder than words. This is not to say she is objective, far from it; rather she is subtle. From the stories that come to her out of war-torn Bosnia, the refugees she travels with, and the people she encounters while living in England, whether charity volunteers or friends from school, all are carefully woven into a series of vignettes that fit together to describe the 'othering' of refugees contrasted against Maric's desire, as a teenager, to both rebel and belong. From the women and children on the bus being told to 'dress down' in order to gain sympathy from the English, to the silence of the Home Office regarding refugee status, from the teenage Jehovah's witness to underage drinking habits in Penrith, from the groups of Bosnian women exchanging gossip on street corners while smoking heavily to visions of Hull as a paradise of beaches and palm trees, from her father's letters to her sister's pining for her boyfriend, the stories Maric tells are at once completely familiar and entirely alien.

Maric is almost strongest in relating other people's stories rather than her own: the chain-smoking Gordana who leads a rebellion against the refugee committee, the doomed love affair of a refugee with a businessman, the interpreter who cracks under the pressure, the letter from a Muslim friend who ends up in the Emirates. For a relatively slim volume, this book is packed with characters, and she scores home the point that the world is full of screwed-up people with a typically Balkan love of black humour and sense of the ridiculous.

The language sometimes leaves you hanging in the air, descriptive snippets that don't quite seem to belong to the main text and a severe overuse of similes that, while creative, tended to pull me out of the text rather than enhance it. However, when she leaves the bells and whistles alone, Maric's style is strong and direct and immensely readable. She conveys much in few words.

Minor quibbles include the complete change of style in the penultimate chapter that led me to suspect it had been originally a completely separate piece - however well it was written, it did not quite fit in with the overall tone of the book. Had it been the actual epilogue I might well have forgiven it, but the insertion of an extra chapter afterwards made me wonder if the book was done already, however much I enjoyed it.

'Bluebird' itself refers to the bluebirds in the song 'White Cliffs of Dover' and Maric throughout the book refers to WWII as her only frame of reference to the war that is devastating her homeland. However bluebirds are also a symbol of hope, and her optimism, humour and determination are what characterise this book.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For a fictional look at a similar topic - albeit one of economic immigration rather than being a refugee - try Rose Tremain's The Road Home. For another non-fictional look at the life of a refugee from the same conflict we can recommend What Is She Doing Here? by Kate Clanchy.

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