Review: Catch The Rabbit by Lana Bastasic (2021)

Blurb

Sara hasn’t seen or heard from her childhood best-friend, 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.

Translated into English by Lana Bastasic, Catch the Rabbit tells the story of how we place the ones we love on pedestals, and then wait for them to fall off, how loss marks us indelibly, and how the traumas of war echo down the years.

Review

Huge thanks to Alice Dewing and Picador Books for sending me a proof copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Every so often, a book comes along that absolutely blows me away. If I’m honest, I find these books by far the hardest to write reviews for, as my feelings are so strong it is difficult to find the right words. I sometimes find it easiest to start by finding comparisons, making a sort of bookish cocktail of works that remind me of the novel in question. I read Asylum Road by Olivia Sudjic earlier this year, and while on the surface this may seem like a lazy geographical comparison, as both novels have their protagonist returning to their Balkan homeland, I think there is more that links these two – the sense of truth cutting so deep it draws blood, of psychological complexity, of the weight of the word ‘home’. I also fully agree with the cover quote, which references Elena Ferrante – the Neapolitan Quartet definitely came to mind while reading about Sara and Lejla’s deeply complicated friendship; as did a dash of Kiare Ladner’s Nightshift, a novel in which friendship tips over into both obsession and a desire to possess or be taken over by the other person. If you enjoyed any of these books, you will love Catch The Rabbit.

Comparisons aside, this is an incredibly original book. There is so much going on here in terms of the layers of meaning and language and characterisation – I could reread it ten times and still find more to marvel at. Language itself comes under scrutiny, as Sara examines her relationship with the mother tongue she has rejected. It is so interesting that the author herself translated the book into English, and that Catch The Rabbit has been translated into 12 languages, winning the European Prize for Literature in 2020 – it all feeds into the depth of the novel. Identity, childhood, education, literature, sexuality, religion, war and trauma – this book packs in so much, and yet manages, at its heart, to be an intensely focused book about two women and how their lives intersect.

Lejla is one of those characters you want to bottle – she is outrageous, infuriating, funny, desperately sad – she is everything at once, and her magnetism is beautifully captured. It is no wonder Sara can’t escape her siren call, and drops everything to assist her on her quest. This is one of the best ‘road trip’ novels I have ever read, excavating the past through the faulty lens of Sara’s memory as the two women head to Vienna to collect Lejla’s long-missing brother, Armin.

One of the many things that struck me about this brilliant book is how well it captures that bond between childhood friends who have grown apart, a bond that isn’t a sweet, sugary nostalgia so much as a chain, inescapable, heavy, painful. In fact I think Catch The Rabbit unearths a deep and uncomfortable truth about friendship, about how it can be based on hate as much as on love. The writing is so visceral, pulsating with blood and heat and terrible beauty. It is sharp and dangerous and revealing in ways that make for a tense, utterly consuming read. I finished the last perfect pages with tears in my eyes, trembling. And that’s how I know this book is something pretty damn special.

Catch The Rabbit by Lana Bastasic is out on 27th May from Picador Books and is available to pre-order here.

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