What’s your favorite book that nobody else has heard of? You know, not Little Women or Huckleberry Finn, not the latest best-seller . . . whether they’ve read them or not, everybody “knows” those books. I’m talking about the best book that, when you tell people that you love it, they go, “Huh? Never heard of it?”
I know I’ve mentioned this book on this blog before, but I have to answer Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West. West, a British novelist and literary critic, traveled through Yugoslavia with her husband in 1938. At bottom, the book is a journal of her experiences, but it is so much more than that. Wherever she goes, she digs into the history of the region to the point where the line between the past and the present begins to blur. She’s also able to relate that history to the history of Yugoslavia as a whole, going back on occasion to the Roman Empire. She weaves everything together so seamlessly that not until the end of the book do you realize that she’s surveyed the entire history of the country.
Her writing is also extremely lyrical, and she paints such vivid pictures of everywhere she goes that it makes me sad that I can’t see a lot of the places (Sarajevo, Kosovo) the way she describes them.
She even manages to work in a little spy mystery as the clock ticks down to World War II, and they encounter sinister agents of Germany and Italy as well as British operatives.
At over 1,100 pages, it’s not a book for the faint of heart. Also, the one criticism I have is that West has some pretty strong biases. She hates Germans and Turks. She loves Serbs. Getting a well-rounded knowledge of the former Yugoslavia has required further reading, but no other book has made me fall in love with a place I’ve never been.