Layered Take

Josip Novakovich’s Three Deaths Slices Up Grim Reaping

Graphic Mitch Dixon
Three Deaths Josip Novakovich Snare Books 88pp $12.00

Death is inescapable and inexplicable. At any given point death may brusquely interrupt our lives, and this is exactly what author Josip Novakovich contemplates in his new book Three Deaths.

Novakovich was born in Croatia and moved to the U.S. at the age of 20. He has been teaching and writing fiction for most of his life, receiving many awards along the way. Today, he is a professor at Concordia and continues to thrive as a novelist.

Some say one should not judge a book by its cover. But after merely glancing at this slim, unpretentious, yet surprisingly dark book, it is difficult not be drawn in by it. The title and the topic allude to Leo Tolstoy’s short story by the same name, but the combination of different narratives and style render it Novakovich’s own.

The book is comprised of three segments: a short story, a classic tale and a personal essay.

The short story situates us in an enigmatic social terrain: the 1950s Socialist Republic of Croatia. The American government provides a toddler with a shot to combat measles, which turns out to be fatal. In focusing on this incident, the story not only interrogates all the bureaucratic malpractices that resulted in innocent deaths, but it also carefully explores a series of anxieties woven around spiritual delusion and patriotism that were prevalent in such an uncertain cultural climate.

The classic tale recounts a child’s experience with his father’s death. The narrative leads the reader through the mind of the child, exploring the confusion and fear that death inflicts upon families. However, the social landscape—this segment is also set in Croatia—also serves to accentuate the feeling of isolation and spiritual impotence that resulted from generations exposed to war and political tension. As the child deals with his father’s death, the world outside him seems no more forgiving or secure than the force that took his father.

Finally, the personal essay, which threads the two previous stories together, is a retrospective narrative that deals with the collision of generations and the transition of cultural values. Now situated between the United States and Croatia, a family deals with a weakening mother whose condition has been critical for years. Her relationship with her children, as well as with her granddaughter, illustrate how relationships may turn complicated once other, generationally shifted values enter the picture. At the same time, it examines the cultural rupture that people experience when they can no longer associate with what they once knew as home.

Although Three Deaths concentrates primarily on the death of three characters, each story brings forward a set of complex social dynamics associated with war, religion, politics, culture and family relationships.

Novakovich’s style is both accessible and distinctive. In under 90 pages, he alternates between narratives but keeps a cohesive and solid structure. He is able to offer the reader an entertaining, thought-provoking perspective on the complexity surrounding people’s stories—and the inevitable end to those stories.

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 16, published November 30, 2010.