Saturday, June 12, 2021

The Small Boat of Great Sorrows: Dan Fesperman

I read this book for 20 Books of Summer and for the European Reading Challenge. It has an unusual setting and takes place in 1998.

Vlado Petric was once a homicide detective in Sarajevo. He is now living in Berlin, working as a backhoe operator at a construction site, after escaping from Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, when the city was under siege. He is happy to be reunited with his wife and daughter in Berlin, and thankful for the menial job and the ability to work legally in Germany.

At the beginning of this story, Vlado is approached by an investigator for the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague. He is invited to take part in a mission to help capture a man who was a guard at the Jasenovac concentration camp during World War II and participated in the atrocities that happened at that camp. 

Vlado is eager to take part in the mission. He misses his homeland and his former life and this may give him the opportunity to return to Bosnia for good. However, his wife is not so eager for that to happen. They both decide that it is best for him to return to Bosnia for this mission, regardless.

This is the second book in a two book series. The first book, Lie in the Dark, covers Vlado's life as a homicide inspector in Sarajevo during the siege, and his investigation into a conspiracy related to the theft of art treasures in Sarajevo. This book is set about 5 years later, and can be read as a standalone.

My thoughts:

This is a cross between an espionage novel and an adventure story. Some of the actions of the representatives of the War Crimes Tribunal are inept and the events keep spiraling into dangerous situations as mistakes are made along the way. Both the investigators from the tribunal and Vlado have kept secrets, which get revealed along the way. The author ratchets up the tension, and kept me guessing throughout. 

The only character we get to know very well is Vlado. The story is written in third person, but mostly from Vlado's point of view. Another character I liked was the American investigator, Calvin Pine, who  is Vlado's companion on the mission to capture the war criminal. Pine is young, engaging, sincere; not a spy and not cynical or jaded. The sections of the story that focus on the war criminal being sought give us the story from his point of view.

Reading about the realities of living as an immigrant in Berlin was interesting. Vlado and his wife describe the feelings of not belonging, not being able to speak the language very well, and that most Germans resent their presence. But going back to Bosnia has not been an option, and there are still ethnic groups there who resent each other or worse. 

I enjoyed reading this book. I was interested in the setting and the characters. The mission is not as easy as they think it will be, of course, and there are multiple obstacles along the way. The resolution was realistic in my opinion, although there are the typical thrillerish activities towards the end.

I linked to my review of the first book in the series, Lie in the Dark, above. There is a longer, more detailed review by Sarah Weinman at January Magazine.

Another book I have read by Dan Fesperman and enjoyed was The Arms Maker of Berlin


Publisher:   Vintage Crime, 2004 (orig. pub. 2003)
Length:       308 pages
Format:       Trade Paperback
Series:        Vlado Petric, #2
Setting:       Germany, Bosnia, the Netherlands, Italy
Genre:         Mystery
Source:        I purchased my copy in 2010.


Margot Kinberg said...

This sounds like an interesting look at the war in Bosnia and its impact, Tracy. I especially like that it seems to show what happened through the eyes of the ordinary people who lived through it. That, especially, intrigues me. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

TracyK said...

Margot, I like it when a book combines a good mystery with information about a different time and place. It had been nearly seven years since I read the first book in this series, so it was about time.

Rick Robinson said...

I just finished, 5 minutes ago, SALT LANE by William Shaw. There was no problem not having read THE BIRDWATCHER first, there was little mention except for an affair that failed. I’ll comment on it Thursday on Lesa’s blog, but will say here I didn’t like the main character, DS Cupidi, at all and did a lot of eye-rolling at her thoughts, words and actions. I won’t be reading more in the series. I did like the setting.

The book reviewed here sounds kind of depressing, but maybe that’s just me.

TracyK said...

Rick, it is good to hear that not reading BIRDWATCHER made no difference. DS Cupidi does rub one the wrong way in BIRDWATCHER also, but I will still give SALT LANE a try. And probably the first in the other series he wrote. I don't have either of those yet so who knows when I will get to it.

SMALL BOAT OF GREAT SORROWS is somewhat depressing due to the subject matter (war crimes, displaced immigrants), but the story of the protagonist is more uplifting and I did enjoy it. I liked learning about the area and the history of the conflicts there, but there is still a lot I don't understand about the countries in that area.

pattinase (abbott) said...

This is the sort of book my husband loved and I never read. I see now that there is more character development than I knew in spy/adventure books so perhaps I should give one a try. Maybe Mick Herron, who seems to get great reviews.

TracyK said...

Patti, the spy series I like do have a good bit of character development. I agree that Mick Herron's series (Slough House) would be a good one (and easy to find).

Cath said...

I was going to say that thrillers set in The Balkans are unusual but thinking about it they're probably not. I tend to stear clear of books about that war but am, contrarily, actually interested in the area, geographically speaking. It's a bit mountainous and mysterious from what you read and I quite like that.

TracyK said...

Cath, I am going to have to find more fiction and nonfiction about this area. I am very ignorant of political conflicts over the world, past and present. The author was a journalist in the area during the Bosnian War.

Sam said...

I've read several Dan Fesperman novels but it's been a while, and I kind of lost track of him. These two books sound good. This is a genre that Fesperman really handles well. If you enjoy this kind of thing, Gerald Seymour has written several similar novels that I absolutely loved.

TracyK said...

Sam, I have heard of Gerald Seymour but I haven't read anything by him and I don't know much about his books. I will have to look for something of his to read.

CLM said...

I love the title and I am sure his editors tried to make him change it because some of them are afraid of anything unique.

Interesting that he and his wife are both former Baltimore Sun writers like Laura Lippman and her husband David Simon. A lot of creativity in that newsroom!!

TracyK said...

The title of the book came from a Serbian epic poem from 1847, but I can easily see that it would not be a popular choice for a title. Although I hate the titles used now that all sound the same and / or have no meaning that I can see.

I did see that he wrote for the Baltimore Sun and still lives in Baltimore.

R's Rue said...

I’d like to read this. Thank you very much for sharing. I’m grateful.

TracyK said...

I hope you get a chance to read it, R's Rue.

col2910 said...

I still haven't read Fesperman. At least I've stopped buying his books now. Just the first 8 of his to catch up on. Ridiculous.

Davey Bacaron Designs said...

I'd love to read this book. Sounds interesting.