S. is less a work of fiction than an assault. Reading this novel is like entering a long, dark alley in an unfamiliar city. The pressure–and even stark fear–does not relent until the path has been fully traversed and one has reencountered the light. Yet S. is no melodrama or thriller. It is a stark, honest, and extremely painful look at the brutality of war and the sheer incomprehensibility of life.
As the novel opens, S's newborn son lies splayed in a position of surrender. It is a position the reader too learns to adopt as the horrors of the Bosnian war spew forth. Surrender in this novel, we quickly perceive, is a survival technique. The product of S.'s rape by Serbian soldiers, this newborn–this future life–is a reminder of all S. hates. She wishes for its death. The circumstances of his birth, like the shame of his genesis, are a weight that he–and she–would have to carry all his life. Yet, still, he exists. And S., who has experienced the death of all she knew and the person she once was, also survives by surrender, first to death, then to rape, and finally, to life.
Based on real-life testimonies of women held in Bosnian death camps, this single testimonial is unflinching in its “authenticity.” The language is shorn of ornament, yet the tale acquires a singular power in its exacting, affecting detail. One hesitates to call this great literature–it is too political, and slightly too linear, for that. But the novel captures with unrivaled power the fragility of humanity. Long after the novel is finished, it continues to haunt in its precision and truth.