A Partisan's Daughter by Louis de Bernieres

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A Partisan's Daughter by Louis de Bernieres

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Paul Curd
Reviewed by Paul Curd
Summary: A deeply moving novel about love that is also a subtle commentary on storytelling is how the jacket describes it, and it is exactly right. This slight but multilayered novel packs a powerful emotional punch and works brilliantly on every level.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: January 2009
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099520283

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In A Partisan's Daughter, the latest offering from Louis de Bernieres, we are presented with two narrators. The first, Christian (Chris for short), seems to be writing now (i.e. in the early 21st century) about his relationship at the end of the Winter of Discontent (i.e. 1978-79) with the eponymous partisan's daughter, Roza. I am not the sort of man who goes to prostitutes he begins, and then admits that people would disbelieve it.

Chris describes the loneliness of his life at the time, married to the 'Great White Loaf', an insipid Englishwoman with skimmed milk in her veins. This is his excuse for stopping his car one day to pick up a prostitute standing on a street corner in Archway. There is a misunderstanding: Chris asks her if she has the time and she replies, in 'quite a strong accent' that her watch has stopped and Chris realises he has made 'a horrible mistake'. Roza asks him to give her a lift home, and on the way she tells him that once she used to be a bad girl, and her going rate was £500. She invites him to call back one day for a coffee.

And so begins the odd-couple relationship between a forty-something travelling salesman and a twenty-something 'fast-talking Scheherazade'. Chris spends illicit afternoons sitting beside Roza's gas fire, listening to her stories. Roza tells Chris she is Yugoslavian, the daughter of one of Tito's partisan. She lives in a run-down Co-operative Housing house that she shares with a Jewish actor, a sculptress and a boy who lives upstairs and really wants to be Bob Dylan. Until Chris comes along, the only person Roza talks to is the Bob Dylan upstairs, and she admits, I told him all my stories so many times and from so many angles that I lost track of everything I'd said.

This beautifully written book works on several levels, and it had me entranced from the first page. The sense of time and of place are perfectly pitched (I lived in several houses like Roza's in the early seventies and they were exactly as the author describes this one). The characters are sympathetically drawn and complex enough to be real. The strange love that develops between Chris and Roza is equally well realised, and that makes the whole story moving. But the book is also about the nature of storytelling, and about the way people invent and reinvent themselves through their own narratives. We only ever see Chris's loveless marriage from his perspective (who knows how the Great White Loaf would describe him?). We only ever get to know Roza through the stories she tells, and we are never sure how much of what she says is true. (If she is really a Yugoslavian partisan's daughter, why has she gone to the library 'to read up about Yugoslavia'?)

Because de Bernieres switches point of view back and forth between the two main characters we can see how the relationship develops from both perspectives. Chris believes he has fallen in love with Roza, and yet he continues to save up the £500 he thinks it will take to sleep with her. Meanwhile, Roza uses her stories to keep him coming back. But why? At first it may be because she is lonely, and she admits it is fun tormenting him, too. Gradually, subtly, Roza's feelings for Chris develop. But we know right from the start that they are each going to make mistakes that will prove destructive.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is quite short but it is certainly not slight. It may not be quite in the same league as Captain Corelli's Mandolin but, in its own way, it is just as good. Recommended.

Further reading suggestion: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, Septimania by Jonathan Levi or None of This Ever Really Happened by Peter Ferry.

Booklists.jpg A Partisan's Daughter by Louis de Bernieres is in the Costa Book Awards 2008.

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Buy A Partisan's Daughter by Louis de Bernieres at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Partisan's Daughter by Louis de Bernieres at Amazon.com.


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