British novelist Louis de Bernières (Corelli’s Mandolin) returns with a haunting story of sexual repression and frustration in his sixth novel (after Birds Without Wings, Nov/Dec 2004).
The Story: Chris, a middle-aged salesman trapped in a loveless marriage to a woman he calls "Great White Loaf," is driving home in 1970s London when he is instantly smitten with a young woman on a dirty street corner. Mistaking her for a prostitute, he awkwardly propositions her, but Roza, a Yugoslavian immigrant, only needs a ride home, and Chris, now thoroughly embarrassed, obliges. Infatuated, he begins to visit Roza in her rundown apartment, and she mesmerizes him with incredible stories of her father’s wartime feats as a Communist partisan and her own sexual escapades across Europe. When Chris plots to consummate their agonizingly platonic relationship, he sets events in motion that will alter both of their lives.
Knopf. 196 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 030726887X
"The layering of anecdote and reverie and the escalation of intimacy between two marginalised characters is so subtle and authentic that the novel is intensely moving and has its own unexpected momentum. … It reads like a memoir; it offers subtle comment on the art of storytelling; it rarely strikes a false note, and it contains lessons about love and regret and seizing the moment." Joanna Briscoe
London Times (UK)
"This is a silk stocking of a novel: fragile, light, of little practical purpose—and yet possessed of surprising tensile strength. … Unless you happen to be a complete ingénue in matters of life and love, it probably won’t tell you anything you don’t already know about the human condition—especially since, in the final resolution, de Bernières falls into his own trap by romanticising the distinctly unromantic profession of prostitution." Sarah Vine
Los Angeles Times
"I’ll admit I was disappointed not to find another Corelli’s Mandolin in A Partisan’s Daughter (I know, it’s cruel to want writers to repeat themselves). … Still, I was caught up by Roza’s storytelling and hoped that these two desperate people might somehow find more together than chats over coffee, even at the expense of the Great White Loaf." Nick Owchar
NY Times Book Review
"In A Partisan’s Daughter, his urgent, spare new novel of romantic obsession, Louis de Bernières, proficient at intricate historical narratives … shows himself an artist of the simpler story as well. … Their story is told in he says/she says chapters, in unadorned, confessional language that has a certain coarse pathos but less beauty than de Bernières’s usual writing." Liesl Schillinger
"Louis de Bernières delights in taking peripheral episodes of European history and viewing them on a human scale, moulding political events to the shape of ordinary lives. This is his strength, but it is a shame that the same rigour is not applied to the creation of character." Stephanie Merritt
San Antonio Exp News
"The result is a largely unsatisfying exploration of loneliness buoyed only by moments of poignancy or humor, as well as an admittedly haunting ending. … Although A Partisan’s Daughter is partly redeemed by de Bernières’ sensitive treatment of the rupture between Chris and Roza, one cannot help wishing that the author had focused more on the relationship between his protagonists rather than the outlandish topics of their one-way conversations." Rayyan Al-Shawaf
"De Bernières can still write with a certain wry poise. But it is indicative of a talent in the doldrums that, on page 51 of this sour, charmless book, he is reduced to an Irish joke better suited to Bernard Manning." David Robson
Though it treads little new ground, this lingering account of a tortured love affair—"a [gripping] study in frustration, both sexual and romantic" (London Times)—also meditates on the art and power of storytelling and the myths of East versus West. However, critics observed that de Bernières spends a great deal of time on Roza’s Yugoslavian yarns, which are largely irrelevant to the plot, and not enough on Chris and Roza. They also found fault with these relatively unsympathetic characters: several dismissed the exotic Roza as a stereotype; some considered Chris a colorless Everyman; and others a perverted, "self-pitying creep" (Telegraph). While A Partisan’s Daughter fails to measure up to the much-loved Corelli’s Mandolin, this unsettling novel will entertain de Bernières fans who don’t expect a repeat performance.
Also by the Author
Corelli’s Mandolin (1993): Despite her engagement to a local fisherman, a young Greek woman embarks on a passionate love affair with the commanding officer of the Italian garrison occupying the island of Cephalonia during World War II.
POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!
The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.
1. What are the major themes of this novel? How does the idea of storytelling play into them?
2. How much did you know about Britain's Winter of Discontent (1978-79) before reading A Partisan's Daughter? Why do you think de Bernières chose this period for his setting?
3. We readers see Chris's wife (The Great White Loaf) only through his eyes. How do you imagine she would describe him?
4. Did you believe all of Roza's stories? Which, if any, strained your willingness to believe? Which one do you think is the centerpiece of the novel?
5. Discuss the notion of trust as it figures into the novel. Which characters are trustworthy? Do you trust either narrator?
6. What is the significance of the library scene? How did it change your understanding of Roza's actions?
7. Chris believes he's in love with Roza but acknowledges that his obsession is mostly sexual. Does Roza love Chris? Whose motives are clearer?
8. How does the narration, with its shifting time frames, contribute to your reading experience? Why do you think the author chose to allow both Chris and Roza to speak in Chapter Sixteen but kept their voices separate everywhere else?
9. In what ways are the novel's two father-daughter relationships similar, and how are they different? Which relationship seems stronger: the one between Roza and her father, or the one between Chris and his daughter?
10. Compare Alex, Francis, and Chris. How are their relationships with Roza similar, and how are they different? What does Roza expect or demand from each?
11. Along the same lines, compare Roza's relationship with Tasha with her relationship with Fatima. How do these two friendships shape Roza's personality?
12. On page 137, Chris finally tells a story of his own, about his uncle. What purpose does it serve? How does Roza's response show us how she feels about Chris?
13. What role does the Bob Dylan Upstairs play in the novel?
14. Why do you think Roza gave Chris and the Bob Dylan Upstairs different endings to the Big Bastard story? Which do you believe?
15. Discuss the last chapter of the novel. What were you expecting? What was most surprising to you? Were you satisfied with the ending?