After months of reading in English, I have gone back to my native tongue of Serbian to read the debut novel of a woman whose career is hard to put into a couple of words. I have discovered her because she was one of the contributors to Serbian Vice and I truly enjoyed her work there, so I decided to find her on Instagram, as you do. Since then, she has been an advisor to a mayor of a city and fought to have HPV vaccines in the city free. (If you live in or know about Serbian politics, you know how hard it is to find any politician still in any kind of power not related to the ruling party, making this an even bigger achievement.) She is a cancer survivor, feminist and overall an inspiring and outspoken woman who I deeply admire. When I saw that she wrote something in long form, I got my mother to order a book for me with the idea I will eventually read it once it is safe to travel to Serbia from the UK. However, my parents had a different idea and decided to send a copy for my birthday, making this read an even more emotional one.
As I was reading ‘Ispod Majice’ (there is no official translation to English yet, but it means ‘Under the Shirt’) I thought about how I would summarize the plot. There is no real plot, as we follow the female protagonist, also named MarijaRatkovic, during her trials and tribulations. We follow her first sexual experience which sounded quite traumatizing, her friendships, relationships with other people and her battle with cancer and hysterectomy. The narration is also far from linear, as it starts with the protagonist stalking social media accounts of a girl we soon realize is the new girlfriend of her ex lover. While we can all relate to that, the following description of her fantasy of horrific violence was a somewhat shocking, but honest introduction into what kind of novel this is. MarijaRatkovic’s story begins to unravel and the readers are given an insight into her mind, often feeling like this is too intimate to be read, but the honest narration kept me wanting more. I wanted to understand her and people around her. If you are planning to read this book, keep in mind that this is not an easy read, but a novel that requires you to focus completely and really open your mind and heart to it.
I have scored this novel 4/5 on Goodreads for several reasons. While I did feel emotionally invested in the story line and seeing through how the protagonist’s story will culminate, at times I found it hard to follow. As I have previously stated many times, I am not the world’s biggest fan of linear narration and do not mind jumping from timelines, but in this case, there were not always enough markers to guide me through the timeline of events and memories. Maybe this was done on purpose to indicate the internal turmoil of our protagonist and remain authentic to her, but several times, I had to re-read whole chapters to understand what happened and why. That being said, I did overall enjoy the more philosophical aspects of her narrative as it was interesting to read about a kind of person I have never met, but at times it was hard to completely comprehend her ideas fully.
The big portion of the novel is about relationships or the inability of the protagonist to form concrete and meaningful ones as well as how cancer diagnosis influences herself and others around her. This is where the novel is the strongest for me. Without any mercy or holding back, Ratkovic showed us a woman going through multiple heartbreaks trying to piece her life back again. The realization that due to her illness, she will not be a mother and being left by a man she thought is the love of her life, broke my heart a bit. Reading about her relationship with her mother made me want to go and call my mom. I must admit that I found the culmination of her conversation with a woman she stalked a bit anticlimactic when I first read it, but after some thinking, it would also be unrealistic to have some big Hollywood style resolution to what was obviously years of unresolved issues. At the end, the two women name the patterns of toxic behaviour by the common ex and name it for what it was. The ending is hopeful, as the protagonist seems to be ready to let the fantasy of the real healthy relationship go and beings releasing herself from the burden it carried.
This is also the space where a lot of taboo topic were discussed- abuse of drugs and alcohol, BDSM sex, illness and fear of death and the consequences of pathological relationships. Often, I feel like these topics were included simply to indicate to the readers that the author can in fact do it, without the significant contribution to the overall story. In this case, that was not the case and the inclusion of these topics added to the gritty realism of the story. If the protagonist is willing to share the worst moments of her life with the readers, then it makes it that much easier to trust her and accept her invitation to read about her life and her thoughts. I appreciated that the contemporary female author in Serbia did not succumb to auto censorship and the specific voice that Ratkovic the author has in her media and social media presence was visible here as well. She is not afraid to talk about subjects deemed ‘inappropriate’ and on the contrary, brings them to the surface and presents them as part of life that is worth discussing.
Overall, I am very happy that I found Marija Ratkovic on Vice website a long time ago and that I have had the opportunity to read her debut novel. (Thank you again mom and dad and international mail.) I finished reading it about a week before finally sitting down to write down this review as it left quite an impression on me. It took me some time to gather my thoughts enough to be able to present them in cohererent form. I think this is not the end of Marija Ratkovic’s writing in the longer forms, and I am looking forward to reading more from her. Until then, you can re read her columns on Vice Srbija. I know I will.