The New York Times
A Partisan's Daughterby Louis de Bernieres
England, late 1970s. Forty-something Chris is trapped in a loveless, sexless marriage. Roza, in her twenties, the daughter of one of Tito’s partisans, has only recently moved to London from Yugoslavia. One evening, Chris mistakes her for a prostitute and propositions her. Instead of being offended, she gets into his car. Over the next months Roza tells Chris stories of her past. She’s a fast-talking, wily Scheherazade, saving her own life as she retells it–and Chris is rapt. This deeply moving novel of their unlikely love is also a brilliantly subtle commentary on the seductive power of storytelling.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
The New York Times
De Bernières (Corelli's Mandolin) delivers an oddball love story of two spiritually displaced would-be lovers. During a dreary late 1970s London winter, stolid and discontented Chris is drawn to seedy and mysterious Roza, a Yugoslav émigrée he initially believes is a prostitute. She isn't (though she claims to have been), and soon the two embark on an awkward friendship (Chris would like to imagine it as a romance) in which Roza spins her life's stories for her nondescript, erstwhile suitor. Roza, whose father supported Tito, moved to London for opportunity but instead found a school of hard knocks, and she's all too happy to dole out the lessons she learned to the slavering Chris. The questions of whether Roza will fall for Chris and whether Chris will leave his wife (he calls her "the Great White Loaf") carry the reader along, as the reliability of Chris and Roza, who trade off narration duties, is called into question-sometimes to less than ideal effect. The conclusion is crushing, and Chris's scorching regret burns brightly to the last line. (Oct.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
De Bernières, whose sweeping epics took us to Turkey in Birds Without Wings and to Greece in Corelli's Mandolin, turns closer to home with a melancholy tale of midlife crisis set in 1970s London with occasional glimpses of Yugoslavia. Chris is a 40-year-old unhappily married salesman who mistakes Roza for a streetwalker and in his loneliness makes a fumbling attempt to hire her. Instead, he gives her a lift home, and she invites him to return to her ramshackle flat for coffee. He does repeatedly as Roza slowly relates her intricate and allegedly sordid life story as the daughter of a fervent Tito loyalist. A complex and codependent relationship develops as Chris is alternately appalled and thrilled by Roza's blunt, manipulative storytelling and Roza imagines a future as Chris's lover. Overall, this is a sad, quiet novel about missed opportunities owing to lack of honest communication. Although more introspective than de Bernières's other works, this latest novel is no less skillful. For all literary fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ4/1/08; reading group guide available on
“ [A Partisan’s Daughter] rarely strikes a false note, and it contains lessons about love and regret and seizing the moment.... It’s a wise and moving novel, perfectly accomplished. It shows that no life is ordinary. It shines fresh light on the nature of love.” The Guardian
“Louis de Bernières delights in taking peripheral episodes of European history and viewing them on a human scale, moulding political events to the shape of ordinary lives.... Like Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, A Partisan’s Daughter is a retrospective lament for all that could have been, had one moment in the past turned out differently.... It is also a story about the power of storytelling.” The Observer
“A Corellian mix of European idyll and brutal violence...compelling.” Evening Standard
"This is a silk stocking of a novel: fragile, light, of little practical purpose - and yet possessed of surprising tensile strength. De Bernières' mellifluent, clear prose slips through the reader's mind with efficient ease, and even at its most dramatically jarring, you never need to come up for air. This is de Bernières' skill, and it is a considerable one. The world is full of ponderous, self-important novelists; making it look this simple is a real art." The Times (UK)
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Read an Excerpt
The Girl on the Street Corner
I am not the sort of man who goes to prostitutes.
Well, I suppose that every man would say that. People would disbelieve it just because you felt you had to say it. It’s a self-defeating statement. If I had any sense I’d delete it and start again, but I’m thinking, “My wife’s dead, my daughter’s in New Zealand, I’m in bad health, and I’m past caring, and who’s paying any attention? And in any case, it’s true.”
I did know someone who admitted it, though. He was a Dutchman who’d done it with a prostitute during his national service. He was in Amsterdam and he was suffering from blue balls at a time when he was on leave and had a little money in his pocket. He said she was a real stunner, and the sex was better than he had expected. However, the woman kept a bin by her bedside, the kind that is like a miniature dustbin, with a lid. You can still get them in novelty shops. Anyway, after he’d finished he eased off the condom, and she reached out and lifted the lid off for him out of good manners. It was packed to the brim with used condoms, like a great cake of pink and brown rubber. He was so horrified by that bin of limp milky condoms that he never went to a prostitute again. Mind you, I haven’t seen him for twenty years, so he may well have succumbed by now. He liked to tell that story because he was an artist, and probably felt he had a Bohemian duty to be a little bit outrageous. I expect he was hoping I’d be shocked, because I am only a suburbanite.
I tried to go with a prostitute just once in my life, and it didn’t work out as I had expected. It wasn’t a case of blue balls so much as a case of loneliness. It was an impulse, I suppose. My wife was alive back then, but the trouble is that sooner or later, at best, your wife turns into your sister. At worst she becomes your enemy, and sets herself up as the principal obstacle to your happiness. Mine had obtained everything she wanted, so she couldn’t see any reason to bother with me any more. All the delights with which she had drawn me in were progressively withdrawn, until there was nothing left for me but responsibilities and a life sentence. I don’t think that most women understand the nature of a man’s sexual drive. They don’t realise that for a man it isn’t just something quite nice that’s occasionally optional, like flower arranging. I tried talking to my wife about it several times, but she always reacted with impatience or blank incomprehension, as if I was an importunate alien freshly arrived from a parallel universe. I never could decide whether she was being heartless or stupid, or just plain cynical. It didn’t make any difference. You could just see her thinking to herself, “This isn’t my problem.” She was one of those insipid Englishwomen with skimmed milk in her veins, and she was perfectly content to be like that. When we married I had no idea that she would turn out to have all the passion and fire of a codfish, because she took the trouble to put on a good show until she thought it was safe not to have to bother any more. Then she settled in perpetuity in front of the television, knitting overtight stripy jumpers. She became more and more ashen-faced and inert. She reminded me of a great loaf of white bread, plumped down on the sofa in its cellophane wrapping. Englishmen don’t like to talk about their troubles, but I’ve had enough conversations with other men like me, usually at a bar somewhere, usually trying to delay their homecoming, and always reading between the lines, to know how many of us get clamped into that claustrophobic dreary celibacy that stifles the flame in- side them. They get angry and lonely and melancholy, and that’s when the impulses come upon them. I sometimes wonder whether the reason that puritanical religious types are so keen on marriage is their certain knowledge that it’s the one way to make sure that people get the least possible amount of sex.
The woman was standing on a street corner in Archway, looking as though she was pretending to wait for someone. She was wearing a short skirt and high boots, and her face was made up too much. I remember lilac lipstick, but I may have invented that image subsequently. It was winter, not that you’d ever know what season it was in Archway, because in Archway it’s always late November on a good day, and early February on a bad one.
In fact it was during the Winter of Discontent. The streets were heaped high with rubbish, you couldn’t buy bread or the Sunday Times. and in Liverpool no one would bury the dead. You couldn’t get heating oil, and even if you had cancer you were lucky to get into hospital. The comrades in the trade unions were trying to start the revolution, and our particularly hopeless Prime Minister’s ship was holed beneath the water. I’ve always liked being British, but that was the worst time I can remember, and the one time when it was impossible not to be depressed about living in Britain. Back then we all needed some prospect of consolation, even if you weren’t married to a Great White Loaf.
The girl wore a fluffy white fur jacket. She had litter whirling about her in the cold wind, and she was like a light glowing in the fog. She seemed a well-built girl, and I felt a lurch of attraction that I couldn’t help. There was a buzzing in my groin and a slightly sick feeling in my stomach.
It was the first time I’d ever knowingly spotted a prostitute, and I realised that I should just drive on. What if you get taken inside and someone mugs you for your wallet? You’d probably be too ashamed to go to the police. Even so, after I got to the end of the road it was as if my willpower had been mysteriously cancelled out. Something took control of my hands, I did a three-pointer at the end of the street, and came back down. I found myself stopping beside her, and winding down the window. It was all against my better judgement, and I could feel palpitations in my chest, and sweat forming on my temples. It occurred to me that I would probably be too anxious to manage anything anyhow.
I looked at her and she looked at me, and I tried to say something, but nothing came out. She said, “Yes?”
I wasn’t sure of the formula, so I said, “Have you got the time?” because that was suitably ambiguous. She looked at her watch, shook her wrist and put it to her ear. She said, “Sorry, it stopped. I get bad luck with watches.”
She had a nice voice. It was soft and melodious, with quite a strong accent that I couldn’t place.
I tried again, and said, “Are you working?”
She looked at me with a puzzled expression, and then en- lightenment dawned. A whole gallery of expressions crossed her face one after the other, from indignation to delight. Finally she laughed and put her hand to her mouth in a way that was really very sweet and charming. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, you think I’m bad girl.”
I was appalled, and started gabbling, “Oh, I’m so sorry, really I’m very sorry, I didn’t know, I thought, oh dear, I am so sorry, it’s so embarrassing, forgive me, please forgive me, a horrible mistake, a horrible mistake.”
She continued laughing, and I just sat there in my car with my ears burning. At that point I should have driven away, but for some reason I didn’t. She stopped giggling, and then to my surprise she opened the passenger door and got in, bringing with her a tidal wave of heavy perfume that I found very unpleasant and stifling. It reminded me of my grandmother in old age, attempting to disguise the odours of incontinence.
The woman sat next to me and looked at me with a pert expression. She had dark brown eyes and had her shiny black hair done in the kind of style that I believe is called a bob. It suited her very well. As I said, she was a well-built girl, with wide hips and large breasts. She wasn’t the sort I would normally have taken a fancy to.
“I called cab,” she said, “but it didn’t come, and I waited long, long time, so you can take me home, but I regret I don’t sleep with you just now.”
“Oh,” I said.
“It’s not far,” she said, “just few streets, but I don’t like to walk. This place is full of bad ones, bloody allsorts.”
I was shocked. I said, “You shouldn’t be getting into cars with strange men. Something might happen.”
She shot me a contemptuous look and said, “You wanted me in your car just before, when you thought I was bad girl. Before you didn’t tell me not to go getting in car.”
I said, “Yes, but—”
And she interrupted me with a wave of her hand: “But nothing. No bullshits now. I live down that way. You give me lift and that’s how you say sorry. And you protect me from other strange men. OK, let’s go.”
I delivered her to a place that doesn’t exist any more. It wasn’t far from that bridge at the top of the hill where alcoholics from the drying-out clinic used to commit suicide by throwing themselves down to the road below. It was a whole street of semi-derelict terraces that must have been grand once, but back then it was full of abandoned cars and litter. Not many houses had intact window frames, and nothing can have been painted for years. There were wide cracks in many of the walls, and you could see that there were tiles missing or broken on almost every roof. All the same, it seemed quite a friendly and unthreatening sort of place, and that was indeed what it turned out to be. It was a street full of poor people and transients who wanted to live in peace and for whom decorating would have been expensive and pointless. It all got demolished and redeveloped during the Thatcher era. I was sad about that, but it needed doing, I suppose. I passed by when they were wrecking it, and I asked the demolition men for the street sign. I’ve still got it somewhere in the garage.
When I stopped the car she held out her right hand very formally, and said, “Roza. Nice to meet you. Thank you for the lift. I hope you find someone nice to sleep with.”
I took her hand and shook it. I thought I ought to give her a false name, but couldn’t think of one. I was embarrassed by my name anyway. I’m not from a well-to-do family, and I always thought it sounded pretentious. “I’m Christian,” I said, having been reduced by confusion into telling the truth.
“Christian?” she repeated. I suppose it must have been a name that she thought didn’t suit me.
“My parents thought it sounded posh. Everyone calls me Chris.”
Just before she left she leaned down to the window and smiled at me seriously. “So, Chris, how much were you going to give me?”
“For the sex, you know?”
“Oh,” I said, “I don’t know. I don’t know what . . . I have no idea . . .”
“So, Chris, you never been with bad girl before?”
“No, I haven’t.” She looked at me with sceptical indulgence, and I felt my ears begin to burn again.
Roza said, “They all say that. Every one. Not one man has ever been with bad girl before. Never never never.”
I was thinking over the startling implications of this when she added, “When I was bad girl I never took less than five hundred. I didn’t do cheap.”
With that, she turned and climbed the tilting steps to her door. She waved at me gently, with a strangely old-fashioned circular movement of her hand, and before she went in she said, “You come by sometime and I give you coffee maybe, I don’t know.”
I just sat there for a while with the motor turning, and the Archway rain began to fall more heavily. I’d worked out by then that Roza must indeed have been a prostitute, but wasn’t any more. I wondered if I had offended her at all, or if I had merely amused her. It felt as though she had been teasing me.
I don’t know how to classify my falling in love with Roza. I’ve been in love often enough to be completely exhausted by it, and not to know what it means any more. When you look back afterwards, you can always find another way of putting it. You say, “I was obsessed, it was really lust, I was fooling myself,” because after you’ve recovered from being in love, you always decide that that wasn’t what it was.
Every time you fall in love it’s a bit different, and in any case love is a word that gets used too lightly. It ought to be a sacred word that’s hardly ever used. But it was then when I was sitting there in my car with the engine running and the wipers slapping that I began at the very least to fall into fascination. You can call it love, if that’s what suits. I think that that’s what I would call it.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Louis de Bernières was awarded the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book Eurasia Region in 1991 and 1992, and for Best Book in 1995. He was selected by Granta as one of the twenty Best of Young British Novelists in 1993, and lives in Norfolk, East Anglia.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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This is not Louis de Bernieres' regular style, however I enjoyed it a lot.
Chris is like millions of middle-aged men. Stuck in a loveless marriage, he is frustrated at the thought that this might be all there is to his life. One night, while on the way home, he sees a streetwalker and impulsively, stops and tries to hire her. He is instantly filled with regret when the woman is insulted that he thought she was a prostitute. She then tells him that he can take her home to make up for it, and he does. As she leaves his car, she tells him that he seems a nice man and that he should come by sometime for coffee. Then she off-handedly mentions, "When I was bad girl I never took less than five hundred. I don't do cheap." Thus starts the relationship between Chris and Roza. Roza is a young Yugoslavian woman who is in England illegally. Chris does stop by her apartment and she becomes a modern-day Scheherazade, full of exotic stories that have made up her life. Each story reveals more and more of her character and needs. Chris is entranced, both by Roza personally and by the stories she tells. He is shown a side of life he'd never seen as he realizes that while he wants more adventure in his life, he is actually unlikely to pursue it if it means leaving his comfortable, boring life. "I wouldn't want to be a partisan unless I got weekends off and missions were optional." Roza's stories revolve around men in her life, starting with her father. He fought for various factions in Yugoslavia as a partisan, and lived his life afterwards extolling the strength and honor of men like him who were willing to sacrifice everything for the land and lives they loved. Then there is her first love, met when she attended college. After that, she met a man who brought her to England and she lived with him for a while, then slowly drifted away when she got bored. She drifted into hostess work. Roza is fatalistic about her life, and is quick to say she has disappointed the idea of being a partisan's daughter. Louis De Bernieres has created two characters that the reader quickly learns to care about. The slow emergence of Roza's history and of Chris' reaction to its revelations creates a tension that leaves the reader anxious and intrigued. The reader wants to read more of the emerging relationship between these two people who are so diametrically opposed in outlook and life experiences. This book is recommended for readers of current fiction, and is one that will remain in the reader's mind for quite a while after it is completed.
To be honest, I didn't really enjoy this book and was glad to put it down and move on to the next adventure. The books is mainly about the life that Roza has lead and I found her to be a less than likable character. Full Review; http://bookywooks.blogspot.com/2009/12/princess-on-bungheap.html
In the late 1970s in wintry London, fortyish salesman Chris detests his life he loathes his job and hates his marriage though widower status gives him some hope to get past the despair of being with the ¿Great White Loaf¿ late wife. Discontented with his lot he keeps asking himself is that all there is?--------- When he spots Yugoslavian expatriate Roza walking, he assumes she is a hooker. He bungles his efforts to hire her services. She corrects his misconception and they begin to talk. He drives her home and she invites him in her flat for coffee. A friendship forms that he believes is the underpinning of a romance and she assumes is platonic. She explains she came from her homeland seeking a break but so far has found only hardship that has her considering a return to her homeland where her father is a die hard Tito backer.------------ This is an extremely complex relationship drama. The dark gloominess of both protagonists makes this a difficult novel to read as the focus is actually on opportunity costs, especially those not chosen. Roza is the more interesting star as her tale is sensationally erotic over the top and at times ugly, but also feels hyperbolic symbolizing the plight of minorities everywhere (especially Iron Curtain Europe during the Brezhnev Era). Chris is the more realistic characterization of the western middle aged normal who wonders why life is depressing so finds excitement in his companion¿s tales. Not for everyone, as at times overly dramatic and extremely reflective including the action scenes, A PARTISAN¿S DAUGHTER is a deep look at the late 1970s.--------- Harriet Klausner
In One Thousand And One Nights, Scheherazade was the wise queen who told stories to her king to keep from being executed. In de Bernieres' latest work, it is the titular Roza who spins tales to make sense of her own life as she goes from growing up in Yugoslavia to working as a hostess in a pussycat costume to being mistaken y Chris for a prostitute on the streets of 1970s London. Chris is no king but a middle-aged, unhappily married man in the winter of his discontent. He is enraptured both by the stories and the teller and, as time passes, a genuine affection grows between the two. The novel alternates between the points of view of Roza and Chris, though you never quite feel that you get a good grip on either of them. This is partly deliberate as there are hints peppered throughout that Roza is an unreliable narrator who is embellishing her tales in order to shock Chris and keep him hooked. What happens though when the stories run out? Scheherazade wins over the king and keeps her life, but there is no happy ending in sight for Roza. Chris has a conveniently timed meltdown and, even more annoyingly, Roza's voice is unceremoniously silenced. One is left with an ending that feels rushed and forced. Fans of Captain Corellu's Mandolin, de Berniere's deeply humane and funny novel about love in the time of war, would do well to approach this one with caution.