Nadia: A Novel
- By Christine Evans
- University of Iowa Press
- 246 pp.
- Reviewed by Adam P. Newton
- September 21, 2023
A queer Balkan Wars refugee seeks a new life in London.
I enjoy political art, especially when it’s ambitious and has a point of view. However, I prefer it when the artist doesn’t wallop the audience over its collective head with their ideas and themes. Sure, there’s a time to go full-bore Rage Against the Machine with a message, as incandescent fury can often be what’s needed. But I’d much rather engage with work that gives itself room to breathe and grow. It should never be overtaken by its own hubris.
Sadly, I think that’s what happened with Christine Evans’ Nadia, which tells the tale of a young Bosnian refugee from the Balkan Wars of the early 1990s as she starts a new life in London. The titular character suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder while also struggling to integrate into workaday British society. There are regular flashbacks to her wartime experiences, complete with memories of death, destruction, and deprivation at the hands of the occupying Serbian forces. We also get drawn into Nadia’s clumsy yet charming attempts to become less awkward around her coworkers, along with her efforts to talk to a bohemian Brit who reminds her of her girlfriend back in Bosnia.
The novel’s core conflict arises when a young Serbian man named Iggy gets a job where Nadia works via the same temp agency that placed her. She worries that he was one of the soldiers who harassed her, her friends, and her town, and this tension drives most of the action. We soon learn that he was, in fact, a soldier/occupier and has his own baggage to unpack. The author sends us on a series of flashbacks into Iggy’s past, too, possibly to keep the reader from reflexively demonizing him for his role in the war. Unfortunately, as a protagonist, Iggy is far less intriguing than Nadia.
The book also tries too hard to be two things at once: a coming-of-age story about a woman triumphing over pain and redefining herself in a new environment, and a reflection on the sociopolitical ramifications of the Balkan Wars, which brutally pitted neighbor against neighbor along racial and religious lines. I found the bildungsroman angle more appealing, particularly in how Evans portrays Nadia navigating her chatty workplace and the queer nightlife scene in ‘90s London. The writing sings in passages depicting nothing more than Nadia walking around her neighborhood, visiting open-air shops in Camden, and connecting with the owners of the small café near the room she rents.
The sections told from Iggy’s perspective, though, feel clumsily shoehorned in beside Nadia’s, leaving both narrative threads lacking. I wanted to like Iggy more than I did because he seems to be the quintessential “decent guy who grew up in bad circumstances and tried to make the best of it.” The kinship he enjoyed with his two best friends in the army feels authentic, and I appreciated the small detail about him being in a rock band. But I simply didn’t buy the physical relationship he develops with Nadia. It feels forced and uncomfortable. Worse, it seems to have been introduced solely to make some sort of facile point about the shared humanity between people on opposite sides of a war.
Maybe the dual vantage points would’ve worked better as two separate but intertwined novellas, Nadia and Iggy. Instead, the book jumps around too much for its own good. While I applaud the author’s skillful use of language and the technical craft on display, Nadia ultimately feels like a missed opportunity.
Despite the cliches, Adam P. Newton (he/him/his) enjoys living in Houston — most of the time. For his day job, he’s a copywriter for an electricity company. In his free time, he plays games with his family, reads, writes, and listens to music.