I hardly know where to begin with this book. There are plenty of cliches I could apply: Gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, etc., etc. Edna O'Brien has written a remarkable novel based on the heinous real-life man Radovan Karadzic, the "Butcher of Bosnia." But the book isn't his story; it's the story of the people he encounters when he arrives in a small Irish town years after the Bosnian massacres, introducing himself as Dr. Vladimir, a New Age practitioner and holistic healer (and yes, that is to some degree the kinds of things Karadzic did to avoid arrest for years). He's charming and low-key, and the residents of the town are mostly happy to get to know him. Especially Fidelma, whose marriage to a much older man is not producing the baby she so desperately wants. Dr. Vlad agrees to help her.
And then--and then Vlad's cover is blown, he's arrested, and the town learns who he really is and what he's really done. At that point, there is an act of violence that stopped me cold. I literally had to set the book down to recover from it. It's not gratuitous--it makes perfect sense in the scheme of the story, and it affects everything going forward. It's explicit, but mercifully short; O'Brien doesn't drag it out a word longer than it needs to be. But it might be one of the most horrific pieces of violence I've ever read (and yes, I've read the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books and A Little Life), not least of which because of the way she does it, the emotions that are part of it, how and why it happened, and how it affects the characters. But I read it days ago, and it still haunts and chills me. This part of the story is fictionalized, but could so easily be true.
The book then shifts gears and follows Fidelma's life after learning about Dr. Vlad. Eventually she goes to attend part of his trial at The Hague. That too is another wrenching story, the arrogant Vlad defending himself, and the mothers of Srebrenica who arrive in fury and tremendous pain at the loss of their children. And the writing is fantastic:
"Downstairs, one of them handed Fidelma a card and watched as she read it. It said The Mothers of Srebrenica and Zepa Enclaves in English and in what she presumed to be Serbian. Never would she forget the expression in their eyes, a cold desolation, a remoteness from life, from hope, from pity, from this whole apparatus of justice, that could not lead them to where their sons lay, never to be permitted the sacred ritual of burial."
This is the slightest of spoilers: The book ends with a bit of hope. It's not all light and sunshine. No one could live through these experiences without being affected. But it's not just about violence, and human rights, and war. It's about home, community, family, and the link of children to parents. Thematically, I suspect it's a book that will yield new results on a second or third read.
On Goodreads, I gave this 5 stars and noted that it has flaws, but the power overall overcomes those flaws. I've seen some comments that complained about disjointed narratives, and that's easy to understand. There's also just a small technical thing--we have a character named Fidelma with a husband named Jack, but there's also a character named Fifi with a husband named John. It took me a bit to realize these were two separate people; I thought Fifi was a nickname for Fidelma, and Jack for John. I've seen others complain about the focus on Fidelma's life after learning about Vlad, but to me it made sense.
Finally, if you can read this book and not feel that we have to do everything we can to help refugees from war-torn countries where human rights atrocities are taking place--well, all I can say is this: You've got a mighty hard heart.