I received an Advanced Reader’s Copy of this book from the publisher and NetGalley. All opinions are my own. This book is for sale now.
My Heart is a gentle, contemplative read. It is like reading the journal of a man who knows he is living the second half of his life. The first half has been full of drama and movement while the second half remains uncertain. The book is presented as a novel but there are clearly large influences of Mehmedinović’s own life, from the names of the characters to their history in Sarajevo.
The narrator, who bears Mehmedinović’s name, is a writer, a resident of the United States, a man who lived through the siege of Sarajevo with his wife and son before moving to the US in the early 1990s. His son is now an adult, a successful photographer, while Mehmedinović and his wife, Sanja, have settled in an apartment in Washington, DC. In the first section, the narrator has a heart attack and we follow him through his stay in the hospital and in the aftermath as he recovers. In the second section, Mehmedinović travels with his son, re-visiting some of the places they lived when they first arrived in the US, and watching his son do his photography work. In the third section, Sanja suffers a stroke and here she is hospitalized and we follow Mehmedinović as he navigates her care afterward. Sanja’s memory suffers and she struggles in the aftermath of the stroke and Mehmedinović must face that she will likely never quite be the same and how this changes their relationship.
Each section is slow and thoughtful. There is not a lot of action and yet the book is very readable. Mehmedinović’s voice is gentle and methodical. His descriptions of the world around him are simple but beautiful, grounded in the physical. This is particularly moving as he navigates first his own health crisis and then his wife’s. Even when it is clear that he has to have survived his heart attack, there is tension reading about the experience, the moment in which he thinks he will die. There is tragedy and deep love as he struggles to support Sanja after her stroke, and begins to understand that she has entered a new stage of life, that things will not simply return to how they once were.
Sarajevo is a constant background to Mehmedinović’s life. While we don’t get many stories of his experience during the siege, the book is full of references to it, to what their life was like in Sarajevo beforehand and what it was like in the early days of their move to America. In the end, it’s a rather brilliant portrayal of trauma. Mehmedinović and Sanja and their son might not look like traumatized people in the course of their daily lives but as we follow them through a variety of situations, we see how that trauma follows them, informs their decision making. Mehmedinović subtly shows us the trauma of leaving behind your home, your language.
Refugees have two worlds, the one they have left and the one where they are now. The antagonism of the two worlds is the essence of exile. That duality is carried over into language: the first language is the mother tongue, the other the language of the new surroundings.Semezdin Mehmedinović, My Heart
Language is a recurring theme too that Mehmedinović explores. The language that Sanja loses after her stroke. The fact that Mehmedinović speaks and works in English but writes in his native language, Bosnian. When this was pointed out within the book’s narrative, I found myself startled; I had forgotten that this was a translation. And I think this speaks to the quality of this translation into English by Celia Hawkesworth, that I forgot completely that she existed.
Having now read Semezdin Mehmedinović’s contemplative work on aging and later life, I’m very curious to return to his earlier work and explore his literary history.