Review: Something for Bebe by Neil A White

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Reviewed by De Gevallene, April 2021

Rating: 5 out of 5.


How nice to find a young adult writer who didn’t get the memo about today’s young adults being pitiful snowflakes who have to be protected from anything upsetting, because their delicate little nerves can’t take it.

Any young adult who is such a snowflake, and accidentally stumbles on this book, is going to need immediate transfer to a softly-lit safe-space, a ton of emotional support, and possibly a grovelling apology from the author, because this book doesn’t pull its punches. At its heart – though dead before the story starts – is a Bosniak muslim woman, the Bebe of the title, who was witness to the horrors of the Bosnian war, when tens of thousands of Bosnian muslims were driven out of their villages and many thousands of them were massacred. Rape of Bosniak women was used as a weapon of war. Murder was commonplace. They called this filthy project “ethnic cleansing”.

It’s a kind of revenge story – though not as straightforward as it seems at first. Bebe’s widower, a journalist now terminally ill, returns to Bosnia with a final mission to complete. Before departing he leaves a mysterious message for a budding teenage journalist whom he has mentored. Intent on unravelling the mystery – and perhaps preventing more loss of life – she follows her mentor and the story unravels. I don’t do spoilers, so that’s all you’re getting, but the Bosnia of the present where the adventure takes place is deeply riven by its past, and its history is everywhere. There is present violence as well as historic. And there is ongoing injustice – despite the intervention of international courts, the crimes against humanity which characterised the war went largely unpunished, and their unresolved evil is a poisonous undercurrent to the present day.

As a young adult I would have been riveted by this story. Young adults are as tough as they let themselves be. Most of them are not fragile: on the contrary, they have superpowers. For a start, they still have the easy callousness of children: not yet believing in their own mortality they can confront the mortality of others in a way that makes older people flinch. They are also mercifully unsullied by the disgusting grey compromises they will probably make when they are older, so unlike the rest of us, they have clear, black and white voices in calling out injustice. And they have the sharpest intellects they will ever have, so if they dare to exercise thought, they will cut through your platitudes like a knife through a snake’s tongue. Young adults will cope with this story very well. Personally, I found it pretty harrowing.

So what was in it for me? I read it to the end, anyway, and I didn’t have to, so there must have been something to reward me. The story was good, the twists engaging, the characterisation of the leads was neat and compelling. I liked, intellectually, the device of a fictional story set against actual history. I enjoyed identifying with Maddie – what’s not to like to be back in the head of a young woman at the start of adult life? But I also liked the choppiness of the changes in perspective, and the fact that the elderly Elliot was given as much focus as young Maddie – how intriguing for a young reader to find themselves inside the head of a man beyond retirement. And how necessary for young people to know this story, to be alerted to the possibility of a whole nation going to the bad. The possibility is always a risk. At the moment, in many countries round the world, it is very close. We should all be alert to that.

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