Thursday, June 10, 2010

Review by JD: Pretty Birds – a novel by Scott Simon


A Harrowing Novel based upon the War in Bosnia through the 1990s

John’s Thoughts:  While I would normally hesitate to say that everyone should read a certain book, I might break the rule for this one. This is a really good book on an important subject. And don’t be misled by the title; it is a gritty, brutal, touching and tragic story about one of the most shameful acts of the 20th century – the siege of Sarajevo which took place during the war in Bosnia.

While it is a work of fiction, much of the framework and the many of the details woven into the story are factual. Simon was a journalist covering the war in Bosnia (and many other wars) and he has received a host of major awards for his work, which has featured on the radio, television and in newspapers

The story revolves around Irena, a sports-mad teenager who lives in Sarajevo with her parents and her pet parrot – Pretty Bird. Despite the ethnic tensions caused by the splintering of Yugoslavia into several different states, Irena and the people of Sarajevo do not feel threatened initially. Sarajevo has always been proud of its multi-ethnic background and indeed seems to thrive on the mix of cultures. As one of the characters says when asked about her ethnicity and religion:

I am Muslim. I may have a touch of Jew. I know I have a touch of Serb. I also refuse to eat animal flesh – a touch of Hindu. You will find that here in Sarajevo we all have a touch of something.

Sadly, whatever the people of Sarajevo may feel, the city is quickly swept along by events far bigger than the city itself. The Serbian army and paramilitaries crash into town and almost overnight the city is arbitrarily split into two halves divided by the river, with the well armed Serbian forces on one side, and the largely unarmed Muslim civilians on the other. Irena’s family, while not really religious at all, are deemed to be Muslim, and they have the misfortune to live in the part of the city that is claimed by the Serbs. They are forced to flee and suffer terribly as ethnic cleansing takes over a largely secular neighborhood.

The Muslim half of Sarajevo is now surrounded by Serbian forces and so begins the terrible siege of the city. No-one is safe anywhere as they are subject to daily and indiscriminate bombing and sniper fire. Starved of all basic needs and of the means to fight back effectively (they were subject to a UN-imposed arms embargo), the mainly Muslim Sarajevans engage in whatever acts of defiance they can – and Irena eventually becomes a sniper too.

The story takes you through the terror and deprivations of the ordinary people, and describes their remarkable resilience. But there is humor too, as they try to maintain some semblance of normality. It is full of interesting and rich characters, and the plot twists and turns in ways you do not expect. You root for the main characters but you know that in the world that they are forced to live in, things cannot end well for all of them.

There are a couple of things about the book that didn’t quite work for me, but I’d be nitpicking to describe them. This is a very good book – moving, illuminating and thought-provoking. I’d rate if 4.5 stars and I’d recommend that you make a point of reading it.


  • Pretty Birds  by Scott Simon
  • ISBN: 0-8129-7330-5
  • Pages 345: paperback
  • Random House, 2006 (hard cover 2005)
  • Genre: General Fiction

Amazon purchasing links for US/UK/Canada.

This book is from our personal library collection. Where John (aka JD) as always, will be addressing your comments for this book. So don’t forget to check the follow up comment box to get his reply back.

Happy Thursday folks and thanks for reading Layers of Thought


Fiona said...

This sounds very good. I want to make it my mission to explore different settings as last year the good majority I read was set in the UK, and the next the USA - creeping into a few European countries and Japan. This year so far same trend but for the next six months I should make a great effort to change that.

Anyway, I've been abstaining from buying books, I think this book will go on my 'books to break the ban with' list.

John D said...

Hi Fiona. That sounds like a good strategy. When I think back over the last year or two, some of my favorite reads have been ones set in countries and cultures that I knew little about. It's a fun way to learn.

I've just finished reading another really good novel set in Spain during the 15th century. Review coming soon!

Charlie said...

This sounds very much like The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway, which I read and reviewed last year.

That was indeed one of the strangest wars ever: neighbors were suddenly the enemy and rocketing the city from the hillsides.

Good review as always, JD.

John D said...

Thanks Charlie. This book whetted my appetite for finding out more about the war in Bosnia.

I shall add The Cellist of Sarajevo to my list of books to seek out.

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