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Devastation, self-discovery in the Balkans

The Stone Fields: An Epitaph for the Living
By Courtney Angela Brkic
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 316 pp., $24

As a child Courtney Angela Brkic often traveled with her family from the United States to Sarajevo to visit her great-aunt Ana. As an adult Brkic remembered just a few images from these visits: wooded hills, children selling wild strawberries on pieces of bark, the catfish that swam in a plastic tub in her aunt's kitchen. These bucolic images resonated in Brkic's memory years later when she embarked for the Balkans guided by a very different sense of purpose.

It was 1995, the year the Dayton Peace Accords ended the war in Bosnia. A field archeologist whose father grew up in Croatia, Brkic traveled to her father's homeland to interview hundreds of women in refugee camps. She progressed to even more harrowing work in Bosnia-Herzegovina, helping to excavate the bodies of people killed in the Srebrenica massacre, assist pathologists with autopsies, and arrange personal effects -- trousers, socks, sneakers -- for photographing. At 23, Brkic was one of the youngest members of her Physicians for Human Rights forensic team.

After returning home Brkic began the book that would become "The Stone Fields." But the desire to render her experience in fictional form muscled its way forward, and Brkic put aside the memoir to write "Stillness and Other Stories." The 2003 collection, which won a Whiting Award, considers the war in the former Yugoslavia from a host of competing perspectives. While most of the stories center on relative innocents, others showcase characters who bear some degree of guilt or guilt by association: a sniper, a government spy, the daughter of a war criminal.

It's fortunate that Brkic returned to her memoir. "Stillness" is a bracing look at the ravages of war, but it pales next to "The Stone Fields." This memoir is not a straightforward confessional; woven through Brkic's reflections of her time in the Balkans is the story of her grandmother, who was imprisoned during World War II for hiding her Jewish lover. Dogging Brkic throughout is the question of why she chose to live and work in the Balkans during one of its most peace-challenged periods. It's to Brkic's credit that she never fully answers that question; she refuses to simplify her own experience. There are no epiphanies here, no learning moments.

Both "Stillness" and "The Stone Fields" are content-driven books: Their power derives from the intensity and immediacy of the subject matter. But "The Stone Fields" is much freer of writerly tics. "Stillness" exposed Brkic's weakness for florid metaphors, images that in many cases distracted from the gravity of her subject. "The Stone Fields" reveals a more disciplined writer at work. The constraints inherent in the memoir form -- the demand to tell the truth, or at least some form of it -- work to curb Brkic's more purple impulses.

Indeed, for the most part "The Stone Fields" is a sober evocation of a world and a conflict most Americans have already forgotten. The book doesn't have a canned, ripped-from-the-headlines feel. Brkic plays the role of outraged witness, but her anger never turns shrill or preachy. And in the midst of all the devastation she finds love -- albeit a wrecked version of it, perhaps the best that could be found under the circumstances.

Brkic is no stoic; she stands apart from her colleagues precisely because she cannot distance herself from her work. She writes of her heightening sense of isolation: "In Bosnia I was a part of the forensic team because I . . . excavated beside them and ate with them in the evenings at the mess hall. But I was not one of them, because I understood how the war had changed everything. I knew this because I knew how things had looked before."

The story of Brkic's grandmother Andelka focuses the larger narrative. Andelka is orphaned young, widowed young, and left with two sons to raise. Her husband's death is a liberation of sorts, prompting Andelka to move away from her provincial village to Sarajevo, where she savors her newfound anonymity. There she falls in love with Josef Finci, who is everything she isn't: educated, urbane, Jewish. Their clandestine affair turns grave when Andelka hides Josef in her apartment during World War II. Andelka died before Brkic was born, so much of what appears in these sections -- the dialogue, the gestures, Andelka's reflections -- is fiction based on fact. Brkic chooses her details with care, so that whatever she invents feels earned.

Perhaps the most critical figure in "The Stone Fields" is Brkic's father, who in 1959 fled Sarajevo -- by then a Communist stronghold -- for good. Beroslav Brkic regarded the safe home he provided for his family in the United States as his greatest accomplishment; the knowledge that his daughter was placing herself in danger in the region he had escaped would have been too much to bear. And so Brkic fibbed about her work in the Balkans, telling her father that she was reading maps in an air-conditioned office in Slavonia. Father and daughter dance around each other through much of the book, each doling out a combination of truths, half-truths, and outright lies. But by the end, there is understanding: the most intimate excavation of all.

Amy Kroin writes about books, film, and popular culture.

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