Summer of the Dancing Bear by Bianca Lakoseljac
Author: Bianca Lakoseljac
Genre: Fiction (Historical / Eastern Europe / 1960s / Coming-of-Age / Gypsies / Rural Life / Grandparents / First Love)
Publisher/Publication Date: Guernica Editions (6/12/2012)
Rating: Liked a great deal -- loved at times!
Did I finish?: I did -- I luxuriated with this one!
One-sentence summary: The summer of 1960 -- with the mysterious disappearance of a neighbor's baby and the arrival of gypsies -- shapes Kata's life for years to come.
Reading Challenges: E-books, NetGalley
Do I like the cover?: I do -- it's a smidgen cheesy but it represents a specific character/scene and I do like that.
I'm reminded of...: David Rocklin
First line: Perched high up in the crown of an old cherry tree, eight-year-old Kata sat in her hideaway, humming a tune.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you like poignant coming-of-age stories, Eastern European fiction, or stories from the '60s.
Why did I get this book?: I loved the title -- there's something so magical and romantic about it.
Review: I lingered over this short novel -- 250ish pages -- because Lakoseljac's writing was so lovely -- poetic and lyrical -- and the story she was telling was so sad and bittersweet, I didn't want to rush through it. Set in Serbia (or as it was then, Yugoslavia), the novel begins in the summer of 1960, and follows Kata, a young woman living on her grandparent's farm with her aloof, cold mother and fascinating, emotive grandmother.
For Kata, this summer literally changes her life when the gypsies arrive in the small village, bringing with them a dancing bear and a young man she decides she's in love with. When a young villager's infant disappears, the gypsies are accused of kidnapping the child, and suddenly the once welcome visitors are now criminals and murderers. While Kata's grandmother likes and openly interacts with the gypsies, others in the village are less welcoming, and when the gypsies leave, a cloud of suspicion hangs over them, lingering for years. In the coming summers, Kata's life is shaped by that summer -- how she thinks about family, her own identity, her place in her village and the specter of the baby's disappearance which never leaves.
It takes a skilled writer to create believable, evocative children and teenagers, especially in a book in which they -- and their evolving feelings, beliefs, attitudes, and thoughts -- are the primary focus. Lakoseljac's Kata was a lovely foil for this dreamy, complicated, emotional story: she was curious and imaginative in ways I could relate to, a book lover and romantic, a young woman determined to solve the mysteries that divided her village and find her place in the world.
My only critique is that, near the end, during the big reveal, I felt a bit lost, unsure of what was happening -- I reread the final chapters a few times (no challenge since the writing was so lovely) but even now I'm not sure I can say confidently I understand what happened. Dream and reality merged -- I got caught up in the language, that's for sure! -- and the resolution offered is satisfying, sad, and mysterious.
Get this book if you like coming of age stories, or rural/small town locales, or post-WWII fiction. (Death is a preoccupation in the village, as those killed during WWII are still missed, as war crimes from the '40s remain unsolved, and it was a fascinating backdrop that was relevant and ignored by the villagers as needed.) If you enjoy poetic novels, this is one for you -- Federico García Lorca figures literally at times -- and Lakoseljac's prose won't disappoint. I'm eagerly awaiting her next novel.
*** *** ***
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