The emotional, geographical and moral scope of They Are Trying to Break Your Heart is surprisingly large and, despite the complexities, powerfully compelling.
There are two major tales, one set in Bosnia during the war, and one in Thailand around the time of the Tsunami in 2004, but any attempt to reduce the plot does a disservice to the craft of the telling of these stories that unravel around formative relationships, those special people who shape how we see ourselves.
Anya is a human rights researcher who receives a call from her ex, William, for the first time since they split up three years ago. That tug to reconnect is there despite her anger and when she realises she could answer some questions about possible war crimes in Bosnia by visiting William in Thailand – something about a resort by the ocean that cropped up during a visit to a dead soldier’s ex-girlfriend – she uses her job as an excuse to follow her heart and gets on a plane.
Marko is a Bosnian living in Cambridge, England. He fled Bosnia after burying the man he considered to be his brother, the war hero Kemal Lekić. Kemal was killed in a devastating bomb attack on their hometown. As none of his remains were found they carried an empty coffin to the grave. But when he gets a call from his cousin explaining that Kemal’s body was found in Thailand after the tsunami, he returns to Bosnia to bury Kemal again and to unearth the truth about who Kemal became in the war and afterwards. It’s also an opportunity to see Kemal’s ex-girlfriend, Vesna, a woman Marko was once in love with.
And then there’s William. He runs an English language school in Bangkok but he’s living in a haze. He longs for the holiday with Anya to develop into something, but it’s 2004 and deep beneath the waves tectonic plates are shifting, building momentum for devastating upheaval that will tie all these lives together.
In telling the story like this, it feels like a thriller. Certainly, I turn the page in order to find out what really happened back in Bosnia, but there is so much more to this novel than that (this is a mere fraction of the tale that also explores, Karate, rape and miscarriage and includes a dizzying number of characters all somehow relevant to the novel’s themes). The different places are described with care and affection. I can see and feel the differences in terrain, the weight of the air and sun. I can also read the story as a narrative about learning to live with loss, loss of a home, loss of a loved one, loss of a sense of self. They Are Trying to Break Your Heart is all about how to put yourself back together in the face of tragedy be it personal or global. Understanding the story of your loss, carrying it like a beacon into the world, allows you to move with and beyond it.
It’s a powerful novel and quite how David Savill managed to juggle all these narratives and all these places and histories in a relatively short novel is staggering. They Are Trying to Break Your Heart is a phenomenal achievement; a beautiful, global, novel that will stay with you long after you finish reading the final page. Pre-order your copy now as it comes out in April this year.
Next week I’m reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara mostly because I so enjoyed her article in The Guardian, ‘Don’t we read fiction exactly to be upset?’.