First Rule of Swimming (Brkic)

The First Rule of Swimming
Courtney Angela Brkic, 2013
Little, Brown
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780316217385

A woman must leave her island home to search for her missing sister-and confront the haunted history of her family.

Magdalena does not panic when she learns that her younger sister has disappeared. A free-spirit, Jadranka has always been prone to mysterious absences. But when weeks pass with no word, Magdalena leaves the isolated Croatian island where their family has always lived and sets off to New York to find her sister. Her search begins to unspool the dark history of their family, reaching back three generations to a country torn by war.

A haunting and sure-footed debut by an award-winning writer, The First Rule of Swimming explores the legacy of betrayal and loss in a place where beauty is fused inextricably with hardship, and where individuals are forced to make wrenching choices as they are swept up in the tides of history. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Washington, D.C., and Arlington, Virginia, USA
Education—College of William and Mary; M.F.A., New
   York University
Awards—Whiting Writers' Award
Currently—lives near Washington, D.C.

Courtney Angela Brkic is Croatian American memoirist, short story writer, and novelist. A native of Washington, D.C., she grew up in Arlington, Virginia, and graduated from Yorktown High School. She studied archaeology at the College of William and Mary, and graduated from New York University with an MFA.

In 1996, she went to eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina as part of a Physicians for Human Rights forensic team, then worked as a summary translator for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. She has taught creative writing at New York University, the Cooper Union, and Kenyon College, where she held the Richard L. Thomas Chair in Creative Writing in 2006.

Her short story collection Stillness won the 2003 Whiting Writers' Award. Stone Fields, an exploration of the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica, was published in 2004. Her debut novel, The First Rule of Swimming, came out in 2013.

Brkic is also the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts and Literature grant, a Fulbright Scholarship to research women in Croatia's war-afflicted population, and a New York Times fellowship. She teaches at George Mason University and lives near Washington, D.C. with her husband and son. (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 9/6/2013.)

Book Reviews
The violent history of postwar Croatia, from 1945 until the turn of the millennium, created three generations of dislocated people…Courtney Angela Brkic conveys all these dislocations with empathy and poetic grace…The First Rule of Swimming examines lives bruised and twisted by history, like weather-beaten trees that nevertheless manage to produce the sweetest fruit.
Brooke Allen - New York Times Book Review

Two sisters from a remote Croatian...Magdalena, the elder sister and a schoolteacher, leads a Spartan, practically celibate...while Jadranka is an unpredictable redhead.... When the sisters' American cousin Katarina unexpectedly invites Jadranka to live in New York City, several generations' worth of secrets begin to unravel... Brkic juggles too many perspectives and gets bogged down in back-story, when the present-day action and the fraught triangle between the sisters and their estranged mother Ana is what is most absorbing.
Publishers Weekly

Brkic's a special writer whose works hit me right in the heart.... So take a good look at her first novel, whose heroine must set out to New York from the remote Croatian island where she lives to find her free-spirited sister. Instead, she uncovers some family darkness. In-house raves.
Library Journal

(Starred review.) In her exquisitely crafted, superbly structured novel, Brkic summons undertones of Greek tragedy to create her arresting characters and their intense emotions and dire secrets. By dramatizing nuanced questions of who is at fault, who can be trusted, and who will sink or swim, Brkic reveals persistent, multigenerational wounds of war, sacrifice, exile, and longing and imagines how healing might commence. —Donna Seaman

Magdalena is...content to remain a spinster schoolteacher [on her remote Croatian island]. But the disappearance of Jadranka, a gifted artist who had gone to visit a cousin in New York City, prompts her sister to begin an odyssey that uncovers some ugly secrets about their family and the agonized history of the former Yugoslavia. Brkic's well-crafted narrative...affirming[s] the power of love and forgiveness...but...remind[s] us that...reunions can't necessarily heal every wound or change a person's destiny. A few unnecessarily melodramatic plot twists only slightly mar a sensitive tale of deep emotional force.
Kirkus Reviews

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