by Amy Henry
Facing extreme poverty and unemployment in Austria in the late 1800s, the optimistic Ondrej Vinich is certain that a better future lies in America, so he takes his wife on the harrowing journey across the ocean. Their first son is born immediately after their arrival in 1899, a milestone they consider an augury of good things to come. However, a heartbreaking tragedy occurs, leaving Ondrej and Jozef alone as Slavic immigrants in an unfriendly setting. The only solution Ondrej can find is to return with his infant son to Austria, putting the tragedy behind them. A valuable rifle is the only possession he brings home, a fact that prefigures the role of guns, violence, and death in their future.
As a sheepherder and lumberjack, Ondrej raises Jozef in the outdoors, with only tales of heroes and history for company. These stories prepare the youth for only the noble sides of war, leading him on “a journey to the edge of the culture and land in which I had been raised . . . with the imagined valor of heroic battles, and the thought that death would be a thing I doled out to others who dared resist.”
Jozef soon gains a brother, a distant family relation who comes to live with them. Zlee is enigmatic and powerful: “he became the center to which all things weakened or antagonistic were either drawn or from which they fled.” As the two grow up together, their bond as brothers tightens and they end up joining the military to defend Austria-Hungary in World War I. Because of their father’s training, they are selected for intensive sniper training, and are soon known for their deadly success. As the days of war continue, the two learn to trust each other, defy the military brass set on intimidating them, and face an unceasing line of Italian soldiers bent on defeating their homeland.
Although his sentences can be clunky, author Andrew Krivak brings to his novel a lyrical touch about the tragedy of war: “They say the earth is a soldier’s mother when the shells begin to fall, and she is, at first, your instinct not to run, but to dig and hold and hug as much of that earth as you possibly can, down, down, down into the dirt . . . like a child clinging with his entire body to comfort after a nightmare.” That the soldier is symbolically digging himself into a grave for comfort speaks of the ambivalence and confusion amid a deadly firefight.
Despite the war raging in the background, Krivak manages to make the story more than political, raising questions about the nature of death and murder: how was it that two farm boys became deadly snipers, devoid of emotion or conscience? He also plays on the traditional technique of foreshadowing, toying with the reader’s expectations. These little twists and feints increase the tension as the novel progresses, creating a parallel between the confused soldier and the reader—at times, neither knows exactly where they stand. And Krivak paints vivid visual depictions with unusual metaphors: in one case, he refers to the grey-coated German soldiers in their tight formations as doves in a unified flock. These unpredictable nuances create an engrossing narrative that goes beyond a war novel into a character study of loss and redemption.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011