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Originally published Thursday, December 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Partisan's Daughter" spins a poignant tale of obsession

"A Partisan's Daughter" by novelist Louis de Bernières examines a married man's obsession with the daughter of a Yugoslavian rebel in 1970s London.

Special to The Seattle Times

"A Partisan's Daughter"

by Louis de Bernières

Knopf, 208 pp., $23.95

Louis De Bernières has demonstrated that he can move between fantasy and reality without a ripple in "Corelli's Mandolin" and several of his other novels. In "A Partisan's Daughter" he teases the reader into believing a very unlikely story, but by the time the story is ended, unhappily, the reader must, also unhappily, grant its poignant truth.

Chris, a denizen of 1970s London, announces himself to the reader by saying: "I am not the sort of man who goes to prostitutes." It's true; but one night, at the bottom of an abyss of loneliness, he drives to one of those parts of London where such a woman might be found. To his everlasting joy and despair, he thinks he finds one.

"She was wearing a short skirt and high boots, and her face was made up too much. I remember lilac lipstick ... " It is an awkward encounter. Roza denies being a lady of the night, he is apologetic, she says she called a cab and it didn't come, he invites her into his car and drives her home.

Chris returns to Roza's squalid bed-sit again and again, listening to her stories, mesmerized by their content. In his 40s and shackled to the Great White Loaf, which is the way he refers to his wife, he revels in this 20-something's tales of danger, sexual misadventure, love, lust and brutality.

She is the daughter of a partisan, one of Tito's underlings in yesterday's Yugoslavia. Her exploits are those of one who has lived by her wits, whereas Chris, a pharmaceutical salesman, has a life too prosaic for words. "... sooner or later, at best, your wife turns into your sister. At worst, she becomes your enemy ... Mine had obtained everything she wanted, so couldn't see any reason to bother with me any more." He is not without self-knowledge, however, saying: "Time screws death into you through every orifice, but it never stops you yearning."

He is entirely undefended, an innocent, and when no intimacy transpires, Chris keeps hoping. He even brings flowers. Roza is not cruel; she is just more fascinated by her own tales than she is by Chris — until the too-sad ending, when we find out, as if we didn't know it, what she really wanted all along.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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