Facing Violence and Oppression, A Parade of Brutal Disillusionment

Picking up How to Be a Kosovan Bride my automatic response was a resigned sigh of ‘all quiet on the Western Front’ – yet another human-fates-and-bravery-in-a-war-torn-era tale. War has definitely been thoroughly used and explored in literature, and there is no end in sight: Hosseini hit the target with his Afghanistan novels; the BBC Spitfires WWII period drama and modern crisis series at a steady pace; Nolan blew the box office with Dunkirk; and Tolstoy is a permanent victor with that War and Peace of his. War as a backdrop is a safe bet to provide enough story line potential for a brick of a novel (looking at you Tolstoy) or a seemingly never-ending series thereof (the Sharpe saga, anyone?). 

But Naomi Hamill’s How to Be a Kosovan Bride shoots with novel ammunition and serves to show that war fatigue is very much solvable. 

The Kosovan crisis has remained in the shadows of both English language literature and history teaching in general, and this novel incorporates war on personal and cultural levels in a way that is quite the wake-up call to some of the oppression and atrocities of very recent European history.

How to Be a Kosovan Bride sets off with the weddings of two Kosovan women. They act as a frame story that spins the novel off into tales of folklore and the civil war. One of the women, The Kosovan Bride, ties the knot and goes from school girl to the perfect wife and sweetheart of her in-laws. The other, The Returned Girl, has a somewhat more short-lived marriage, as she fails the virginity test on her wedding night and is sent back home with her shame. But the irony of fate turns the decks around, and The Kosovan Bride soon finds herself trapped in an abusive relationship, while The Returned Girl leaves for the capital and university, to live a life of English boyfriends, political activism, and a budding literary career. What unites both women in their diverging feminine experiences is the art of story-telling. The Kosovan Bride records folk tales for her children in secret from her increasingly abusive husband, while the other interviews her relatives about the civil war in her increasingly politically aware student life. From this, the novel’s nested structure unfolds and provides the reader with much more than a guide to being a Kosovan bride.

a powerful narrative of oppression and liberation and what they can drive people to do 

Hamill’s novel is a parade of eye-opening, brutal disillusionment. The reader is forced to face violence and oppression both at home and at war, as well as unimaginable desperation. While in modern homes, young girls are married off to older men only to assume a domestic position, in the flashbacks to the civil war, those not strong enough to escape – whether babies or elderly relatives – are left behind to near-certain death to maximise the chances of survival of the rest. However, even with all its brutal reality, the novel does not make the too-common mistake of gorging on misery. There are glimmers of hope, brave individuals, and a whole storyline of female emancipation and strong women. 

Pulling this off is largely thanks to Hamill’s mastery of the multi-levelled narrative. The tales can be eclectic at times, but on the whole, the snapshot structure works effectively to bring out glimpses of the past, even more so than a more unified structure would have allowed for.

Where the story stumbles a bit is its predictable trajectories. The characters are never really fleshed out enough to be tangible but remain in a typecast mould of strong females in oppressive situations. Children or freedom? Escape or endure? Can success grow out of hardship? Universal and tragic questions to be asked, yes, could they be asked by individuals and not stereotypes. As for the cast of side characters – the husbands, boyfriends, parents, and in-laws – they remain very much just that: on the side, most often projected in terms of black and white. Just as the protagonists escape from their abusive surroundings, the characters escape from the reader, too.

Even so, How to Be a Kosovan Bride is a powerful narrative of oppression and liberation and what they can drive people to do. The set up may not be original but Hamill doesn’t fail to bring a fresh breeze to the genre and to shed light onto some of the darkest elements of life – both at home and at war.

How to be a Kosovan Bride by Naomi Hamill is published by Salt and is available now. 

Anna Hollingsworth

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