If you are planning a trip to Croatia, Serbia or Bosnia and Herzegovina, this poignant memoir, My family and Other Enemies, by Mary Novakovich (published by Bradt Guides), about travels to her native lands in Lika, Croatia, is a must read. I have just put it down, watery eyed and feeling just a teeny fraction of the loss that Mary must feel every time she has to part company with this incredible piece of the world.
I felt like I went on a real journey with Mary reading this book. From her trip alone, as a child, to Lika in the 1970s from Canada, where her family had now settled, to a journey with her mother to reunite with beloved family and friends in 2009. And then back again when Mary and her husband returned on several occasions, the last being just before the pandemic.
Throughout the book, I felt as if I was travelling alongside Mary, listening in on her family stories, dipping into the River Una with her, looking longingly over to ‘her mountain’ or just watching the fireflies in the otherwise perfectly dark skies of Lika.
I sat in Gojko’s garden sharing stories over a glass of rakija, I was on the backseat of a small car driving up stony lanes trying to find hidden hamlets that were once homes to loved ones caught in the firing line, and I could taste the šljivovica and feel the bura kick in, sitting in Desa’s idyllic rural garden.
Mary ‘finds beauty in the small things’, something she has clearly inherited from her loved ones in Lika and beyond. Of course, I now want to go and see these small things in person, explore the real Croatia, further understand its complex history (which Mary explains expertly and painfully), follow the River Una and find all the sublime swimming spots she talks about.
That’s what a good travel book should do and, not surprisingly, Mary pulls it off. What I also love about this book, apart from the fact that it is as much about people as it is about place, is that it’s also the story of a daughter of emigrants, a child trying to get to grips with her identity, and then a woman who is so confident with and proud of her heritage. The personal journey from childhood to womanhood was an added bonus to an already beautiful book. Thanks Mary.