They are Trying to Break Your Heart by David Savill – Review
By Nigel Armitage
Two cataclysmic events several years apart – the Bosnian War and the Indian Ocean tsunami – are less the backdrop to this riveting debut novel by former BBC journalist David Savill, than the central forces determining the lives of its main characters.
Although different to the extent that one event was human-made and the other a natural disaster, their consequence in the form of widespread devastation and death was the same. Shifting across time and place, the story’s multiple narratives explore the profound emotional impact of these events on individuals who survived, but who are nevertheless changed, forever.
The novel starts in October 2004, describing human rights researcher Anya Teal’s attempt to trace a lauded Bosnian War combatant (Kemal Lekić) suspected of a war crime. Her information about Kemal is tenuous, not least because his death has already been officially recorded. But she follows the lead to Tao Lak in Thailand, inviting along for the trip her first love William, hopeful perhaps of understanding how and why their relationship ended unhappily. One of the story’s strengths is its depiction of Anya’s and Will’s respective inner landscapes and the way these landscapes meet in places, but then also diverge.
In April 2005, Marko is picked up at Sarajevo Airport by his cousin Samir. He has travelled back from London for the funeral of a childhood friend. The War may have ended ten years before, but there are reminders everywhere, not least in the form of Samir’s prosthetic leg. As with other characters in the novel, Marko’s journey is both physical and emotional, forcing him to reconcile the past – in its sometimes harrowing details – with the present. Samir’s comments are meant to warn Marko as much as to advise him: ‘”When I say I can’t remember, Marko, I mean – maybe. If I tried. But I don’t want to. You have to choose what to remember.”‘
Memory and the imagination and how they combine to create meaning is a key theme in the book. Moving back and forth between the different time periods, the story shows how an individual’s perspective of a person or an event can change. How does Marko reconcile his remembrance of his great friend Kemal in light of the allegation that Kemal had raped a Bosnian-Serb woman? Or that Kemal had been alive and seemingly well ten years after Marko had carried his friend’s coffin at his funeral?
In the face of grief and loss, Will also undergoes a journey into reconciling the past with the new bewildering present. His story is not told in terms of an easy step-by-step path to some kind of redemption, but of finding simply a way to focus on what remains important. What Will and Samir have in common is a desire to reach out to people who may be able to help. It is a process that ultimately leads them to reach out to each other.
They are Trying to Break Your Heart is a compelling and moving novel that illuminates the human experience of events over which those affected have little or no control. Such events – whether a war or a tsunami – don’t just destroy and take away; they leave something behind for those that remain.
It is to David Savill’s great credit that by the end of the story the reader cares a great deal about the lives of those individuals who not only survived but who have a future to build.
‘They are Trying to Break Your Heart’ by David Savill is published by Bloomsbury, £8.99