They Are Trying to Break Your Heart by David Savill
Bloomsbury, 24 March 2016
ARC, 348 pages
*My copy supplied for review by the publisher.
On Boxing Day 2004 a massive earthquake out in the Indian Ocean caused a tsunami that swept the coasts of Thailand, Sri Lanka and India and killed over a quarter of a million people. In the aftermath of this utter devastation the fates of those who died and those who survived seemed arbitrary. People who had been standing side by side experienced entirely different endings: one surviving with barely a scratch, the other wrenched away and battered to death; whole families gone, their bodies found miles apart, except for a toddler who somehow lived. No rhyme nor reason, no differentiation between the deserving or the damned. No answers, no pattern. A disaster like that is what it is: a force majeure, an act of God, almost impossible to comprehend.
There is a moment in David Savill's expansive, generous debut novel that fixes on the moment before the disaster, after the initial, smaller wave came and went but before the big one that swallowed everything. While animals made for higher ground, and birds took flight, people stayed still, even moved further into the path of disaster:
It was not the first wave they had to fear. It was their ignorance. They couldn't see the first wave for what it was. The kindness of the world. A warning.... On Kao Lak beach, even after the first wave made land, children played, and their parents watched. Only humans, with their human arrogance, possess the instinct to stand and stare at what they have never seen before.
So sure are we of our mastery of the world, we can barely believe its power over us. We are vulnerable; we are easy to destroy. Savill was a BBC journalist at the time of the tsunami, and spent six months reporting from Thailand in the aftermath. He saw what happened with his own eyes, and seeing is believing.
They Are Trying to Break Your Heart interweaves the experience of the tsunami with the trauma of the civil war in Bosnia ten years earlier, unlikely times and places bound together by the story of a man who died in both. Kemal Lekic, a young hero of the war, was killed in shelling on his home town near Sarajevo in 1994. His body was never found, assumed vapourised by a direct hit, and the coffin his friends buried was filled instead with keepsakes. His surrogate brother Marko grieved hard, alongside Kemal's girlfriend Vesna.
Fast forward to 2005 and Marko has resettled in England, got a girlfriend of his own, a good job; the war in Bosnia is behind him, a bad memory. He's getting a takeaway - oh prosaic life - when his phone rings and an old mutual friend Samir tells him that Kemal is dead. Again. His body has been identified amongst the victims of the tsunami in Thailand. He has been alive for a decade, running a bar on a beach, thousands of miles from his grave. The body is being flown home - will Marko come home too, to lay him to rest a second time? Marko's immediate return to Bosnia, flashbacks to the war and to his friendship with Kemal spin one half of the story. Why did Kemal leave? What happened to him during his final months as a soldier that made it easier to slip his skin, abandon the people who loved him, than stay?
The other half of the book belongs to William and, through him, to Anya. They are erstwhile lovers, who reunite at Kao Lak on the coast of Thailand for Christmas after a three year break in their relationship. William is at an impasse in his life, washed up teaching English in Bangkok, while Anya is a human rights researcher for Dignity Monitor working on reparations for people displaced by the conflict in Bosnia. The holiday is a tentative foray back into their thirteen year partnership, an experiment at William's request. Unbeknownst to him, however, Anya has an ulterior motive for the visit. She is unofficially on the trail of a war criminal, a man she thinks raped and murdered refugees while commanding a unit back in Sarajevo. She has reason to believe he is alive and well and at Kao Lak. His name is Kemal Lekic.
The novel weaves a complicated web back and forth through time, flashbacks within flashbacks within flashforwards, so that sections from 1994 reflect back to the 1980s and onwards to 2005. The structure is slippery, unexpected and, though each section of the book is date and place stamped, we slide between before the wave and after the wave, between Sarajevo, Kao Lak and Bangkok without warning. Time and space are collapsed, so that William, recovering in Bangkok months later, still feels like he is dripping with tsunami water. At first this is confusing and hectic; it leaves you feeling unhooked from the story. You get used to it though, because Savill has a good ear for sense of place, a journalist's gift for invoking a Thai beach at Christmas or a judo championship in a bombed out city. The writing is muscular and kinetic, pulsing with energy. It has a good mouth feel when read aloud. Here, for example, is Marko's arrival of Samir's house, back in Bosnia for the first time in a decade:
Samir's house is perched over the old Sarajevsko beer factory, on the hills above Bascarsija, where the wooden shacks lean into each other as if they are trying to hide. But the house itself is a giant thing of unpainted concrete, three times the size of the old shacks... The house is half finished, no carpets, wires sticking out of the electric sockets and a carpenter's bench with a circular saw covered in blue tarpaulin. He shows Marko the view over the tumbledown roofs of the neighbourhood, where minarets light up the beautiful early-evening mess of Sarajevo. The night smells of friend onions, meat, and all the things he really misses about Bosnia.
They Are Trying isn't always lyrical - though it often is - but it is always exacting and observant: the tarpaulin is not just any tarpaulin of your imagination, it's blue. This detail gives the novel real-world texture, which is essential because otherwise the thematic weight of it would overwhelm the story. Given the difficult subject matter - the wave, the war - it could so easily have been overwrought with meaning with a capital M, but it's not. It gives due respect to the substantive reality of what it fictionalises.
There is a lot going on in this book, about the nature of agency and control, about the dynamics of power, about guilt and redemption, but displacement out-themes the rest. The movement of things and people from one place to another, across borders, across time, at the level of the individual and the nation, suffuse the whole from beginning to end. It plays out most vividly in the tsunami itself, where the ocean is forced up and over land by the shifting of the seabed. The wave is the activating force of the story - it brings Kemal, Anya, William and Marko into the same narrative space, and works on them as both a reality and a metaphor. As the characters experience it, in life and then in the nightmares that follow, it reoccurs again and again. The tsunami hits They Are Trying to Break Your Heart a dozen times or more. William revisits it almost willingly, in fits of horror and relief:
He lies down on the bed and darkens the windows of the room with a switch in the headboard. Inside the sea is silent, and this silence is where he wants to return. Above the water, only noise; people shouting, car alarms, snapping buildings, cracking trees. It all happens in the roaring throat of the ocean. The unmooring of the world. The wave picks up a car and pushes it slowly through the window of a shop. The buildings drift like unanchored ships. The street slips, water grabbing William by the ankles and pushing him down where a cold silence pours in and he is free. Here in the wave, where he holds Anya's hand.
We see it roll in from multiple points of view, and it's dominance is such that even before it happens it darkens every encounter in the story. There is a powerfully poignant moment just hours before the event, when Anya speaks to a little girl on the beach. She is carrying an inflatable giraffe, separated from her parents; her fizzing lifeforce, her daring innocence as she darts away from Anya's concern, is made painful with anticipation of what will happen to her. It is terrifying to think how unwitting we are, how oblivious to danger. How our lives roll right up to the credits. The same is true for the children and young people dead in the shelling in Bosnia, the attack that supposedly killed Kemal, the bombs falling on them during a ceasefire party.
The war in Bosnia turned thousands of people into refugees, and led to a mass migration into Europe and surrounding countries. Marko, of course, is one of these, so, in his way, is Kemal and so are the women he allegedly raped. People are moved, by violence, to new places. Though life is arguably a constant cycle of movement, these displacements are extraordinary and traumatic. They require a period of recovery. As well as the moment of impact, They Are Trying is also about this recovery, and what happens to the people who survive the displacement, who go on carrying the terrible weight of guilt and responsibility of living when others have died. When the novel begins both William and Marko are reserved and retentive. Their behaviour seems cruel or cold or crazy. Only as their painful memories begin to surface, as they unpick and explore them, do they begin to emerge in their complexity. Each of the book's characters is treated like this, with gentle tenderness, and the length of the novel provides space for you to grow affectionate, even with people who can be reprehensible. Some aspects of their characters are deeply troubling, which is not surprising given the circumstances. Marko in particular does and feels some dark things; and he is quicker to forgive others their dark pasts than we might like. William behaves like a bit of a fool for significant portions of the book. Almost everyone is lying to everyone else, about their motives and their desires. They are people though, and exposed like this they kind of break your heart.
So, yes, the synopsis on this debut novel presses exactly none of my buttons: it's realist, contemporary, confronts war, natural disasters, human rights abuses. It is a million miles outside my comfort zone, and I don't really like the cover. It was put in my hands by a publisher I like, blurbed by an author I admire - Anna Hope, who is part of the same writer's group as Savill - but I still had to challenge myself to pick it up. Which is an abject lesson in how, sometimes, other people really do know what's best for you. In a year already teeming with good reads, this book turned out to be amongst the best of them so far.