Sara hasn’t seen or heard from Lejla in years. She’s comfortable with her life in Dublin, with her partner, their avocado plant, and their naturist neighbour. But when Lejla calls and demands she come home to Bosnia, Sara finds that she can’t say no. What begins as a road trip becomes a journey through the past, as the two women set off to find Armin, Lejla’s brother who disappeared towards the end of the Bosnian War. Presumed dead by everyone else, only Lejla and Sara believed Armin was still alive. Confronted with the limits of memory, Sara is forced to reconsider the things she thought she understood as a girl: the best friend she loved, the first experiences they shared, but also the social and religious lines that separated them, that brought them such different lives.
Our protagonist Sara, is a young woman born in Bosnia who now resides in Dublin, Ireland with her boyfriend Michael. From the beginning we get the impression that Sara has worked hard in trying to distance herself from all things associated with her home country. Then out of the blue, her childhood best friend Lejla (who she hasn’t spoken to for over a decade), called Sara and asks to driver her from Mostar to Vienna. Despite the time that has gone by, Sara and Lejla have one tie between them- Lejla’s older brother Armin who disappeared during the atrocities of the Bosnian war. What’s curious is what exactly are the friends looking for in this road trip? Is it just Armin, or is it that they’re both looking for an understanding of their pasts?
From the opening chapter we become aware not only of the author’s influence of Lewis Carroll’s writing style, but that Sara is an unreliable narrator. Writing down her thoughts she addresses the reader, “I am the one telling the story. I can do whatever I want with her. She can’t do anything”. Immediately there’s tension of Sara’s feelings towards her relationship with Lejla. And so with the rest of the novel, it is divided up by the present and recounts of certain events from their shared past. We realise Sara and Lejla remember events from their past differently, and we’re more inclined to question Sara’s perspective because of the biased language she uses in the opening chapter to support this. So, throughout the novel there’s doubt as to whether Sara is being dishonest about her memories of the past, compared to Lejla’s.
The novel’s title- Catch the Rabbit, gives admiration to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Bastašić creates a world that is stemmed from reality, is inhabited by impressionable characters. Really, Lejla is the one who takes centre stage in this novel despite Sara being the narrator. A white rabbit does feature in the story, and is key to the friends relationship. Like Carroll, Bastašić toys with logic and the multiple meanings of words, for instance, as they drive through Bosnia darkness falls mid-afternoon. At first it seems confusing until you realise why, and that its figurative to Sara feeling haunted by her past and for her Bosnia is eternally dark in her eyes.
What really connected me to the story was Sara and Lejla’s friendship. Its here where I can see the comparisons made between Bastašić and Elena Ferrante in terms of the way they dissect and define female relationships. I think we can all say that we’ve had a friend who brought out competitiveness and perhaps envy or jealousy. For instance, I remember when I started losing my baby teeth and comparing when I lost them in comparison with my friends was almost like a competition for growing up as fast as we could and a sign of dominance. The classic “I’m older than you, therefore I know more than you”, and this is reflected throughout Sara and Lejla’s friendship. One instance is when Lejla gets her period before Sara (even though Sara is eight months older than her), and she asks Lejla about it, but she is dismissive of Sara as she “shrugged, as if something like that couldn’t be explained to us- dry girls.” For Sara it feels like the turning point in their friendship when differences between the become more apparent as they grow older. We learn that growing up the disparities between the two girls are, Lejla belonging to a persecuted minority of where they lived (Banja Luka) and the family having to change their names at around the same time Armin disappears. Even though Sara wasn’t within this minority, she still experiences the toxic post-war environment that troubles her to the present day.
Catch the Rabbit is a thought provoking story of friendship, and putting those we admire on toppling pedestals. Bastašić’s writing is a wonderland of talent. Its about grown adults rethinking and reinterpreting their past and not liking what they find, and the traumas of war that have an affect on the rest of their lives. It made me research more into the background of the story- the break-up of Yugoslavia and the region’s history- which is something I’ve been ignorant of previously. I even read the book a second time to piece together my understanding more of what was going on. The first time I read it, (a bit like reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) I couldn’t quite peace together what was going on or figure out the ins and outs of Sara and Lejla’s relationship. After some clarity of reading it again, I realised how brilliantly thought out and beautifully written this book is. Its no wonder Bastašić won the European Prize for Literature 2020 because its very well deserved!