Jason Quinn Malott's debut, The Evolution of Shadows, is a devastating, often dizzying novel of returns and turnarounds. Years after war photographer Gray Banick vanishes in Bosnia, his American, English, and Bosnian friends convene in Sarajevo to solve the mystery of his disappearance, a venture that sends them traveling around the country, seeking hints of him or his remains. Malott's characters rarely stay in a single timeframe—or a single place—for long: they slip frequently into recollections of lovers and dinners and battles past, making their experience of the present seem just as bumpy, as prone to stalling and sliding backward, as the malfunctioning car they drive across the countryside.
This latest addition to the suite of novels inspired by the Bosnian conflict generally takes a straighter tone than, for example, Aleksandar Hemon's Lazarus Project or Sasa Stanisic's How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone. Where Hemon steeps sections of his book in noir, and Stanisic infuses scenes with magic realism, Malott employs a matter-of-factness that emphasizes the horrific unlikelihood of his war stories. All the while, he pulls the reader from one story to the next, from one period and place to another—from present-day Bosnia back to Kansas City, where Gray lived; from the search for Gray back to his days in the war. Creating a subtler disorientation, scenes and images recur throughout the novel, so that, for the reader as for the characters, progressing though the book means remembering: veering mentally backward to the novel's earlier phases. A card expressing congratulations for a wedding appears three times; only the final instance, which reaches deepest into the past, explains its significance.
Like the story they inhabit, the characters proceed by regression, dwelling on long-ago enigmas in order to move on from them. The novel ceases its backward loops and concludes only after Lian, Gray's ex-lover, learns his fate—only after shades of gray give way to something like surety.
That passion for certitude belongs not only to Lian: elegantly, it defines and motivates nearly every character. Lian's husband sifts through her belongings to determine why she's left for Sarajevo; Gray strives to uncover Serbian war crimes; the assembly of friends in Bosnia seeks his remains. Most scenes brim with scents and tastes and sounds (the word "sound" appears five times on the first page), as if sensual experience might compensate for the many intangibles haunting this book.
The novel's most heartrending character, Stepjan—a Bosnian who lost his eyes, an arm, and mobility of his legs in the war—struggles with a world that has become not only senseless and insensible but difficult to sense. Malott's spare style (which only occasionally drifts into melodrama) delicately depicts Stepjan's anguish: "There are times…when he still feels everything he lost. He imagines raising his left arm to his face, expecting his own fingers to touch his lips, to see his own hands appear out of the blackness." The novel explores splits of all kinds—between lovers, between groups of people, between past and present. Stepjan suffers for being physically split off from himself.
Malott's explorations of divisions usually succeed: two of the friends seeking Gray belong to divorce-bound households in England and America, reflections of the festering Bosnian state. This mirroring works partly because the Bosnian war was literally domestic (one wrenching scene describes a Bosnian finding his family murdered in his home). Yet when the narrative focuses on how Lian's Chinese-American identity influences her relationships, the Western version of conflict can feel a tepid answer to the Bosnian, a forced marriage in an otherwise coherent study of incoherence—a meditation on both the horrors of falling apart, and the arduousness of remaining in one piece.
Abigail Deutsch is a writer from New York. Her work appears in The Village Voice, n+1, and several other publications.