A moving story about loss, forgetting and female friendship: two women on a road trip across Bosnia head towards a lost brother and a collision with the lies they’ve told themselves about where they’re from.
Sara hasn’t seen or heard from Lejla in years. She’s comfortable with her life in Dublin, with her partner, their avocado plant, and their naturist neighbour. But when Lejla calls and demands she come home to Bosnia, Sara finds that she can’t say no.
What begins as a road trip becomes a journey through the past, as the two women set off to find Armin, Lejla’s brother who disappeared towards the end of the Bosnian War. Presumed dead by everyone else, only Lejla and Sara believed Armin was still alive.
Confronted with the limits of memory, Sara is forced to reconsider the things she thought she understood as a girl: the best friend she loved, the first experiences they shared, but also the social and religious lines that separated them, that brought them such different lives.
In Catch the Rabbit, Lana Bastašic tells the story of how we place the ones we love on pedestals, and then wait for them to fall off, how loss marks us indelibly, and how the traumas of war echo down the years.
Sara left Bosnia years ago, finally settling in Dublin, and has succeeded in leaving her country thoroughly behind, cancelling all traces of it from herself and her life. Until she receives an unexpected phone call that undoes all her efforts. It’s Lejla, Sara’ best friend from childhood, whom she hasn’t spoken to in twenty years. At Lejla’s request, Sara drops everything and hurries back to Bosnia, embarking on a road trip across Europe to find Lejla’s brother, Armin, who disappeared during the war and everyone else presumed dead.
During the journey, Sara is forced to confront her origins, her relationships (especially that with Lejla) and the past she so desperately tried to forget. The book is narrated by Sara herself, as if speaking with Lejla, and alternates an account of their road trip with past episodes, slowly leading up to the events that led their friendship to fall apart. As a result, everything is filtered by Sara’s perception, feelings, and faltering memory. Memories are notoriously unreliable, and Sara’s is no exception. It becomes clear quite early on that she and Lejla have very different recollections of the same events, begging the question: where does the truth lie?
I was very much reminded of Elena Ferrante’s books when reading Catch the Rabbit, both in the relationship between the two main characters (which strongly resembles that between Lenu and Lila) and the narration style, a game of mirrors where the truth is always hiding and individual desires shape the perception of reality. While I didn’t particularly like Sara and Lejla as individuals, I did love them as characters. Both are deeply complex and masterfully drawn by the author, showing how the past influences present lives, expectations pollute relationships, and loss and trauma leave deep, often unhealing, wounds.
The writing is exceptional and the author did a wonderful job of translating her work into English. It’s clear that every word has been pondered, every sentence expertly crafted, and nothing is left to chance. The circular structure of the book is highly original and clever indeed. It did leave me perplexed for a while when I reached the ending but, once I understood it, I definitely appreciated it. One negative aspect for me was that I struggled with certain passages throughout, and sometimes had to re-read them to ensure I had understood correctly, which slowed the pace for me and took me out of the story. The ending left me with just as many questions as I had at the beginning, and brought me to think about this book long after the final page had been turned.
Catch the Rabbit is a beautiful homage to Alice in Wonderland, where most things and words have multiple meanings, and truth and reality are as elusive as a white rabbit. Steeped in Balkan history and culture, this is a multilayered read touching on several themes, such as friendship, family, identity, diversity, loss, the effects of war and so many more besides – and I’m sure more still would emerge on a re-read. Well-suited to lovers of My Brilliant Friend and Balkan history and those who enjoy deep, complex and problematic characters.