‘A Handful of Sand’ by Marinko Koščec (Review)

As you may have noticed, I’m always keen to try translated fiction from new sources, and today’s review is of a book from a previously untried publisher.  Istros Books specialises in works from South-East Europe, especially the Balkans, and my first taste of their work comes from Croatia.  At first glance, it’s a typical love story, a novel describing how two people find each other.  However, it doesn’t quite end that way…

Marinko Koščec’s A Handful of Sand (translated by Will Firth, e-copy from publisher) is a novel written in two alternating monologues.  One is from the perspective of a man while the other tells a story from a woman’s point of view.  While there are no names to give you any clues, the sections are handily printed in different fonts.  The man lives in Canada, the woman in Zagreb, but we sense from the start that there must be a connection between them – one we’ll have to wait for.

Through these rambling monologues, we gradually learn about their lives.  The two are of a similar age and grew up in a country which exploded into pieces, leaving them resident in the new (old) country of Croatia.  Both have difficulties to overcome, involving a missing parent, finding love and working out what it is they want to do with their lives.  Then they meet…

A Handful of Sand is an intriguing ‘he says, she says’ story about a relationship decades in the making, but one which may not last much beyond the initial spark.  It also provides a brief insight into the last few decades of Croatian history, but don’t worry – this is not another war novel.  The conflict is distant, and the mentions of it are fleeting.  For the writer, his characters’ personal growth is far more important.

Nevertheless, it is far from being a sunny, happy book.  Both of our narrators struggle through their youth, with the man in particular obsessed from an early age with the darker side of life.  He describes how a friend used to talk about death:

“He could discuss death endlessly.  These were actually dialogues with himself, because I had nothing to say on the topic.  Death is something certain and eternal, everywhere and at all times; it’s damn hard to forget that but even today I don’t have anything to add.  Maybe he came to me with his endless monologues because no one else took him seriously; but how can you dismiss someone when they show so much passion, when they only seem really alive when talking about death?”
p.23 (Istros Books, 2013)

He may claim that he has little to say on the subject, but it’s one which is never far from the surface.

The woman is an artist (we later learn that she’s become a fairly successful one too), but her life has had its own ups and downs.  From the death of her mother to her struggle to gain acceptance for her work, she tries to balance her desires with the needs of her possibly crippled, possibly hypochondriac, father.  She’s also looking for someone to share her life, but she just can’t find the right person…

Of course, from the start, the whole book is heading towards the inevitable meeting:

“You were standing next to one of the originals effectively hung on the walls, with your arms folded, supporting your chin in the palm of your hand, and with a cigarette between your fingers.  All at once I was standing on a narrow sliver of ground, everything else fell into an indefinite, mute whiteness, except for that figure, seemingly just a few steps away, which stepped forth from a gracious heavenly hand and switched off the world around her.” (p.168)

The two fall headlong into a passionate affair, one with sizzling chemistry.  This is no fairy tale, though – the story doesn’t stop at that point and make claims for happily-ever-after.  The real story is what happens afterwards, a look at the consequences when two damaged people collide…

There’s a lot of good writing in A Handful of Sand, and there is also some very funny, dark humour in parts.  The man is a literary editor, and his description of the chaotic life of a Zagreb publisher is both insightful and amusing (the anecdote about the doomed visit of an alcoholic Finnish writer is a highlight here).  The woman also has her moments, at one point making a living by pumping out bulk Mediterranean landscapes for ignorant tourists.  However, on the whole, it’s a dark and foreboding novel, and the last fifty pages proves those premonitions correct.  The final part of the book is compelling, disturbing and slightly surreal.  Even after going back and having a second look, I’m not completely sure exactly what happened – or whether it actually took place at all…

If I were to criticise the book, I’d probably say that it was a little slow at the start.  It takes a long time to get to the meeting, and as we’re pretty sure it’s coming, the time drags a little.  Also, as well as being unsettling and confusing, some scenes towards the end of the book are actually a little upsetting – consider yourself warned 😉

Overall, though, A Handful of Sand is an interesting story of how a relationship is seen differently through two sets of eyes.  The moral, if there is one, is that of making time count, with several images throughout the novel of sand slipping through fingers.  When you find the right person, you need to act fast – every grain counts…

6 thoughts on “‘A Handful of Sand’ by Marinko Koščec (Review)

  1. I loved the way this is such a different approach to the love story ,almost like a whodunnit at times .I love the fact all istros books tend to be about the balkans but with out the war as the main subject ,all the best stu


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