Between Mountains

by Maggie Helwig
ISBN: 067697628X

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A Review of: Between Mountains
by Angela K. Narth

Maggie Helwig's newest novel is essentially a love story, but it is so much more than simply a tale of romance. Set mainly in The Hague and Bosnia, this novel spans the final six months of the last millennium, giving us a rare glimpse into the tense post-Balkan war political landscape that remained after the attention of the rest of the world had moved on. It is July 1999. Daniel Bryant, a Canadian war correspondent, has remained in Sarajevo to follow up on interviews with suspected war criminals. Travelling to The Hague to pursue his research, Daniel renews his friendship with Lili, a French citizen of Serbian-Albanian descent who is working as a simultaneous interpreter at the War Crimes tribunal-the same tribunal that has indicted Nikola Markovic, Daniel's prime subject. Aware that any fraternization between journalists and tribunal interpreters is strictly forbidden, Daniel and Lili must play a protracted game of hide and seek in order to spend precious moments together, all the while resisting the temptation to share confidential information that each knows the other has.
This is the second novel for Helwig, a Toronto writer with six books of poetry, two books of essays, and a collection of short stories already behind her. Her first novel Where She Was Standing (2001), focussed on the murder of a Canadian journalist in occupied East Timor. The book received critical acclaim and was compared to the work of Michael Ondaatje and Graham Greene. In her first novel, Helwig was able to re-create the tensions and emotional upheaval of war. In Between Mountains she explores the less well-travelled road of post-war horrors, when nightmares return to haunt those who have witnessed or perpetrated them.
The sexual and professional tension between Daniel and Lili is finely wrought with powerful and effective prose. But the most startling passages are those which focus on Markovic's interior monologue in the weeks before his trial. Initially, Markovic is in a state of denial. He wasn't there. He saw nothing. He refuses to read the diaries of his co-accused and insists the written accounts of ethnic cleansing are lies. As the novel progresses, he defends his role as necessary. Later, as he begins to realize the impact of his actions, he tries to convince himself he was acting in response to orders.
Helwig's experiences as a human rights activist and her skill as a keen observer of human nature enable her to put a very human face on Markovic. The prisoner's reactions to the memories that return to haunt him make him, at times, an almost sympathetic character, and make one wonder if war is ever black and white.
This is a profound novel, unlikely to have broad appeal for readers of mass market popular fiction. It will have great impact on those who have ever wondered at the human animal's ability to rationalize acts of cruelty and degradation against one another. For them, and for all students of journalism, ethics and foreign affairs, it should be required reading.

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