Book review: The Longest Winter by Kevin Sullivan

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It is a conflict which took place more-or-less on our doorsteps, but which somehow passed many of us by. For Glasgow-born foreign correspondent-turned-author Kevin Sullivan, however, the Balkans War was a reality which he lived through, basing himself in Bosnian capital Sarajevo for the vast majority of the longest siege in modern history, which lasted from April 1992 to February 1996.

Like last year’s Girl At War by Sara Novac, Sullivan’s novel, The Longest Winter, displays a great deal of knowledge and understanding of a conflict which destroyed the lives of countless Bosnians, Serbs and Croats in the early 1990s, at a time when the rest of Europe was enjoying a period of relative peace and prosperity.

Now communications manager at an organisation which works to account for the missing from the conflict, Sullivan began life as a journalist, travelling around the world to cover the big stories , from Tiananmen Square in China to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. He arrived in the country in 1992, but after only a few months he was injured after driving over a landmine in Sarajevo, and it was while recovering from his injuries after being evacuated from the country by the RAF, and then eventually returning to Sarajevo where he still lives with his Balkan wife, that he began to write the first chapters of The Longest Winter.

His real-life experiences form the basis for the novel, which tells the story of British doctor Terry, American journalist Brad and Milena, a young Bosnian woman who has fled her home to find refuge in Sarajevo. Their stories are initially separate but soon converge as they work together to rescue a desperately ill boy and evacuate him to the UK.

Sullivan’s writing is at its best when he is describing sights and the atmosphere of a country at war – the ducking under stray bullets as well as the visual effect on the landscape: “When darkness fell, the attackers fired flares over Otes. Great shards of orange light illuminated the fields that separated the settlement from the western suburbs.”

His sense of detail is also finely honed, clearly drawn from his own memories. However, although the story is engaging, the characters – and their thoughts and feelings – are often too obviously spelled out. As Terry meets the cast of Sarajevo-based ex-pats, we are told she is “unfamiliar with her surroundings”, the line quickly following the information that she is feeling out of place in her clothes and that she had not planned for the trip, so the fact she is feeling uncertain is not a huge surprise.

One character, Alija, has “an easy-going tone that suggested he was accustomed to being teased by Juric”. Similarly, the main protagonists’ backgrounds are often revealed in simplistic narrative paragraphs packed with mundane factual detail. Sullivan says of Milena: “She was no happier at school than any of her friends. As soon as it was legally possible to leave, she did. Her first full-time job, when she was sixteen, was in a dress shop, where she worked for three years.”

Although described on the blurb for The Longest Winter as a debut novelist (he is published by Twenty7, a new imprint of Bonnier Zaffre Books aimed at finding unpublished writers) according to his website, Sullivan is a seasoned writer with at least one other published work under his belt and a few more in the pipeline. Fans of fast-paced fiction based on recent history should follow his career with interest.

*The Longest Winter by Kevin Sullivan, Twenty7 Books, 336pp, £7.99