The novel opens ominously with a woman named Maria Buloh surreptitiously leaving her home to trudge off in the snow for an unspecified destination. As she prepares, her three-year-old daughter, Sonja, awakens and calls for her mother. Through a succession of eighty-six short chapters, the narrative shuffles between events in the 1950’s and the thirty-eight-year-old Sonja’s pregnancy in 1990.
Sonja and her father, Bojan, are refugees from Nazi-occupied Slovenia and have relocated to Tasmania in the hope of obtaining Australian citizenship and a better life. Like other refugees from Eastern Europe, Buloh can find only arduous work in the hydroelectric camps as the government undertakes a project of building dams and harnessing the region’s abundant water. Buloh cannot adequately care for his daughter, so she is shipped off to a succession of foster homes where she is ignored, reprimanded, or sexually abused. Her fondest hope is reunion with her father, which eventually occurs, but not with the results she anticipates.
Her father is an emotionally blasted creature, a “wog,” as the local vernacular has it, who breaks his back at work and his spirit at night at the local bar. Frequently, in fits of rage and self-disgust, he lashes out at Sonja, beating her so ferociously that her blood spatters the walls, and so fiercely on one occasion that she loses her sense of smell. There are intermittent moments of tenderness—when the two build furniture, when he sews a dress, and when they visit the apple farm of Jean Direen. However, Sonja’s experiences emotionally deaden her, and she departs at sixteen, drifting through a succession of jobs in Sydney and from one loveless encounter to another.
After learning of her pregnancy, Sonja returns to Tasmania to inform her father and lay her past to rest, but once again she encounters anger and disapproval. After another acrimonious quarrel, Sonja visits a friend of her mother who persuades her to stay on the island. Eventually Sonja quits her job and finds a dismal house to rent. Bojan gradually undergoes a change of heart and achieves a rapprochement with his daughter after she gives birth to a girl.
On the surface, the novel seems to be a sentimental potboiler, and indeed it is flawed throughout with melodrama and saccharine sentimentality; however, Flanagan does manage to plumb some serious themes. The first of these is the searing legacy of despair and self-destructiveness. Both Bojan and his wife are emotional mutiles de guerre, having witnessed unforgettable atrocities when the Nazis invaded Slovenia. Maria was raped at twelve and forced to watch her father’s murder, and one of her cherished keepsakes is a grim photo of him lying in his coffin, a memento that Sonja inherits. Maria, however, is a thinly developed character, and thus the full weight of psychological trauma is evinced through the lives of Bojan and Sonya.
A young Bojan sees more in a few months than most do in a lifetime, and one of his most searing memories is of Slovenian partisans captured and executed by the Nazis, with the exception of one who is forced to dig a mass grave. When the digging goes slowly in the rocky soil, the Nazis
made the partisan squat in his shallow hole and they filled the hole back in, leaving only the partisan’s head exposed.
Then they kicked that head back and forth like some weird fixed football until the partisan was dead. They left in a lighthearted mood, as if after a fine day’s hunting. Bojan, fearful of being discovered, remained high up in the pine tree all the rest of the morning and all the afternoon, and only came down with the sun’s descent. And all that long time he was in the pine tree Bojan sobbed silently, staring down at that head erupting from the earth at a broken angle, like a snapped flower stem.
Shortly after his wife’s disappearance, Bojan and a crew are being transported to a work site when their truck halts in the woods and they view Maria’s lifeless body...
(The entire section is 1,984 words.)