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Requiem for Barbara by Branka Čubrilo
This book tells the story of a daughter’s journey to understand her impressively complex mother who died too young, and frankly lived life too hard. Through a series of letters and visits with her father, her mother’s parents, and her mother’s lost love, Lora gets a taste of her mother as a person. But, getting her questions answered didn’t help her as much as she’d hoped.
The writing enabled me to take the journey with Lora in an never ending pursuit of truth through knowledge. At the end, she got what she thought she wanted, only to learn this did not give her the results she’d hoped for.
Finding our place in this world is hard. And the only way to get there is to experience situations like Lora’s. I found the book cathartic and confusing at times…which was how I think Lora must have felt. Meanwhile, it helped define what a true identity crisis can feel like. And it gave me a taste of the immigrant experience.
NOTE: I was provided a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
I give this book 4 stars because it was full of complex people and reflected true living.
When Barbara dies in Sydney, Australia, her daughter Lora finds a series of hidden letters addressed to her estranged father, Ted. Upon reading the letters, Lora realizes that she never really knew Barbara, except as a mother. She uncovers family secrets, sad and hurtful lies, and an array of fascinating people she never knew had made an impact on her mother’s life.
Spurred by these new facts and discoveries, Lora decides to travel to Europe, to her mother’s hometown. In a chance encounter, she meets Davor—a world-famous, yet mysterious figure who was the cause of both Barbara and Lora’s happiness and sadness, as these emotions emerge entangled, intertwined by his story and fascinating past.
The novel traverses Sydney, London and Düsseldorf, where the characters grapple with identity, belonging, and how we find solace amongst life’s biggest challenges and questions.
Universal Reader link: https://books2read.com/u/3JelNA
Here’s an excerpt from the book…
My mother has died. For days after her burial, I did not know where to turn to. I am eighteen years old. I only had her; she died believing so.
She left me a small apartment, furniture, paintings on the walls, a computer desk, and the computer on it. My first thought, my first impulse, was to sell all her belongings, to liberate myself from the unbearable pain. The pain sat on my chest and shoulders and in each moment, it seemed to me that mother was going to step into the living room from her study, deprived of sleep. The pain never lessened, but I understood that all around me was what was left to me after her passing away. Whatever I looked at, it spoke of her.
Soon after her death, I sat at her desk in her study. My mother was a writer, and that was the way she tried to make our living. I always believed she was the best writer in the whole wide world . . . but she didn’t have much success. She published several short stories in women’s periodicals, a collection of poetry . . . she was far ahead of her time.
Sitting there at her desk, I started to pull the drawers out to examine their contents. The contents in the drawers were in perfect order―which was not typical of my mother. She was not the victim of any kind of order.
In the lowest and widest drawer, I found a cardboard folder tied up with a yellow ribbon. On the folder was written ‘Letters to Ted’.
So, it looked like―she still remembered Ted. It was quite a thick folder as it contained numerous sheets of paper. I started to read the papers in the order they were placed.
It was raining on the day you walked out. Miserable, it looks like rain accompanies all separations. I can’t even call it separation, as you left without a word. Lora came in and asked me what was written in the letter I was holding in my hand. I said, “Ted’s gone”. She fell silent. In her angelic eyes, I saw sadness. She did not cry, her petite, narrow face battled with a wild storm of emotions. Then, she said quietly, “He’s gone for good.”
She knew that you had gone forever this time. I nodded my head. I could not utter a word, I was afraid of my own voice. She never cried for you, Ted. You coached her how to handle her emotions. After a while, they called me from her school. They told me her marks had dropped; her eyes were red and teary, often. I explained that her father had left us. Her father, Ted. You (who would doubt it often), you are her father. There were too many discrepancies between us, Ted.
When we got married, I was already pregnant. I conceived a child with you. When you left, I did not know whether that was better or worse for Lora. We were teaching her different things, constantly. The things that were valuable and honorable in my culture and tradition were unimportant and cheap to you. You had contempt for tenderness, calling it weakness; you mocked sincerity, calling it indiscretion. The things she had to hide from you she would whisper in my ear at night when I would come into her room to tuck her in.
You would say, “Why are you covering her five times every night? You will spoil her, make her weak. Let her toughen up.”
Why did you allow her to walk the streets barefoot in winter? It used to horrify me. It used to horrify me!
You never asked me anything about my country nor about my past. Why? Were you afraid I might ask you the same questions? It all was below your interest, below your level. And so, my own past was suppressed in some strange liminal space where I had sealed the doors tightly shut. (They were sealed with padlocks, one thousand tons heavy, a thousand tons of silence, a thousand tons of concrete . . . with padlocks that seemed as if they would never be unlocked, or broken, with padlocks rusted like the ones in the stories of locked princesses . . . like the ones in the stories with a tragic end, because the main protagonist fell ill of a rare illness that came from a silence weighing one thousand tons . . .)
But look, now I want to tell you: I had my country, and I had my past. Even though it looks like a dream now, dreamt long ago (which I dreamt when I was very young), but the one I still remember. You hid your past, for you were not proud of it; it was not ‘good enough’ for you; therefore, you narrated a different one. I could not talk about my past because you were not interested in it (as if it were shameful). But I was proud of it.
My first and only love was a painful affair. I left because of him, believing (still too young to understand) that I would forget him.
Six months have passed since you left. Lora has never asked about you. Since you left, she has been very quiet, her self-esteem has been very fragile. She has completely lost interest in the violin. When I ask her, what would make her happy, she only shrugs her shoulders and says, “I don’t know.”’
That’s how the first letter my mother wrote to Ted ended. I did not know were these copies of the letters she sent to Ted, or were they letters Ted never received? Letters never sent.
My mother was unhappy. I understood that from the first letter. Anyway, I always felt her sadness. (She carried me inside her!). I believed that her sadness came from Ted’s departure and the difficulties of finding a publisher for her novels. But I was wrong. She was not sad because of Ted’s leaving. I was sad because of it. I felt that in these letters, all her life was contained―the history of her hometown, her family, and the history of one love. I put down that letter and with trembling fingers, I took another.
I slid my fingers down the sheet of paper. All her letters were written on the same date―on the second day of June every year until the last one. Every year on my birthday, she wrote him a letter about me and about her. And about Dado – her first love. Why did she do it?
Barbara was sad. Her sentences were heavily colored with cynicism. I never knew her being cynical. If she did not love him, why did she reproach his departure so much? Wounded ego? Or was it because he left her without any money? Or was she so sad because of me?
Tears were rolling down my cheeks while I picked up a new letter. The letters danced in front of my teary eyes.
AUTHOR: Branka Čubrilo
TITLE: Requiem for Barbara
GENRE: Literary Fiction, Drama, Family Literature
RELEASE DATE: May 25, 2023
PUBLISHER: Speaking Volumes
OUR RATING: 4 stars
REVIEWED BY: V.B. “Can Do Indie Author”
Guest Blogger/Reviewer Bio:
V.B. is an indie author who writes romance and Sci-Fi, and voraciously reads anything (with some limits). When she’s not reading and writing, she’s working a day job to pay for her truck habit and puttering around her house.
Great! Thanks for this review, Virginia, and for stopping by the blog! :)
Check out our latest Writing in the Modern Age blog post here.
What and Why Do I Write:
a guest post by Branka Čubrilo
On June 17, 2023, in a spacious and architecturally appealing rooftop ambience of Mosman’s Fernery function room (Sydney, Australia), I had for the third time (over a period of 23 years) a book launch for my novel, Requiem for Barbara, published in May 2023 by my American publisher, Speaking Volumes. The event was well attended by about 60-70 people, just the right number to completely fill the space. The special honor this time was to be introduced to the crowd full of anticipation by my one and only daughter Althea. It was a three-hour event, and in her speech, Althea explained her experiences of living and understanding a mother who is an author. She detailed the differences of comprehension from a child, to her adolescence and finally adulthood. For me, I believe for all present alike, it was a revealing, touching, and humorous account. After her speech, she read the poem “Barbara” by Jacques Prévert, accompanied by classical guitar, “Preludio de Adios” by Alfonso Montes. This piece of music was chosen by the performing guitarist Su Keong, because he said, “It is a sad and nostalgic composition by Montes written at the time he defected from Venezuela to Germany”. The guitarist, Su Keong, found it “to be the appropriate piece for the ‘Requiem’ title theme of the book”. For the occasion, I wrote a speech, my address to the audience to make them understand what I write, why I write, and what writing means to me or to a writer in general. I’d like to share this speech with a wider audience because I received many congratulations for it, learning from the audience that this speech might interest and enlighten many...
Very often, in interviews or privately, I get asked - what do I write about? Or what is my genre? I don’t have a genre. I write about life. How do you deal with what you’ve been dealt by life? Especially, if you have been dealt a mess. Mess varies from person to person, from culture to culture, from family to family. So, the question is - what do we do about it, if the only freedom we have is what we do with the life and the mess we were born into?
I develop well-structured, many-layered characters who grapple with the big and small questions of life. They are always in search of meaning, of reason, love, beauty, in search of home and ultimately of God. I write about love, but I don’t write love stories. I write about human suffering, about wars, migrations, broken homes, broken hearts, and broken countries. About broken souls and broken promises. I am concerned with the big questions of human existence - the meaning of suffering; about pride, overzealous and unnecessary national pride that often leads people astray; about freedom, the shadow self and all of the shades in between two extreme emotions.
My characters are lost, often in moral dilemmas during various life crises, searching for truth.
I was, and I am a person, a writer who has always been in search of that elusive bird, the Truth - it can show us how insufficient our knowledge is, be it academic knowledge, intuitive or spiritual. We are always floating on the surface of the truth, a partial truth learned in our family, educational institutions, or through mainstream media. Truth is elsewhere - that is the reason why we can’t grasp the meaning of complex but simple questions as well. My interests are psychology, though not popular psychology of the New Age, but rather my amazement with what lies deep down in the human psyche that governs our behavior, our choices, and ultimately our deeds that we are not proud of; then my interest lies in philosophy, not particularly of any philosophical school, but rather the personal philosophy of characters that they develop over the course of their lives; and my personal interest lies in exploring religion, Christianity, and often my characters grapple with never reaching the truth about the existence of a benevolent being that runs the universe or their small lives.
I write how much we need love, yet how elusive this notion is, how it is hiding from us, how it is leading us through mud and thorns – per aspera ad astra - in the simple human need and wish for always more -- love. Love, such a desirable companion, shows its face and then it hides, dragging you through tremendous experiences and the sharpest pains to show you that it needs a life-long dedication to master the art of loving. How can we find and keep love when we are unable to participate honestly and without fear? How?
If I talk about suffering, how many people would lift their hand up if I asked them - have they suffered in their lives any kind of heartache, hardship, loss, depression, et cetera?
Unfortunately, life is about suffering, about search, about growth. Look, I don’t want to scare you, to put you off, believing that I am a depressing writer who like a vivisector with a sharp razor cuts through life’s miseries.
I show life in all its glory: the bad and the beautiful.
Therefore, I write about kindness, where it can take you if you are committed to doing noble deeds; I write about lost but found happiness, even when the tunnel looks like a never-ending black hole. I write about random, destiny orchestrated, encounters which change one’s life. I write about injustice and justice.
I write about beauty, governed from my inner need for beautiful art, beautiful scenery, or the beauty of someone’s soul or character. I don’t paint black and white pictures, I always look for balance in my life and in my writing. I aim to be an objective observer.
I observe people, listen attentively to conversations. I soak the atmosphere of a place, of a mentality, observing everything around me, thirsty to know and to use all of my feelings to enrich my mind, hence, to enrich minds and souls of my characters when I sit at my laptop for a new story.
I write about you. My readers find themselves in my characters, in certain situations. In difficult times, they get hope, they laugh and cry with my characters, and I write for me, too, in order to understand my inner world better.
I write about human goodness, advancement, courage, hope and redemption. I impart hope and faith. I stir emotions, so you cry and you fear my characters, you pray and laugh with me.
I like my brutes, the horrible characters, the ones that you dislike (perhaps just because they have some hidden traits of your own character, so they irritate you). They commit unimaginable deeds, war crimes, their lessons bitter and hard, but eventually justice comes and you sigh the sigh of relief, promising yourself that you won’t ever again have a certain thought, deed or, shall I say, a misdeed.
Usually, my leading female characters are physically beautiful women; I show the price of female beauty, the suffering of beauty, not the shallowness of it. My female characters are as well in constant search - with the need to better themselves, they study life through different lessons, through shallow clichés of the fashion world, through the New Age movement, through too many lovers, through art, or again, simply through personal suffering. Many of my female characters are sharp and self-sufficient women, while those that are not yet, are subconsciously yearning to be ‘elsewhere’ or someone better to achieve what they ultimately will become.
In my short stories, I introduce humorous, spontaneous larrikins, naïve or care-free people who visit my vignettes just to make you laugh, or open your mouth wide with astonishment with how direct, rude, or quirky the human mind and behavior can be.
Therefore, I cover a variety of characters, in different lands, of different nationalities, showing that nationality or culture doesn’t necessarily form the character, the good and the evil, kindness or rudeness, that all human characteristics and deeds belong to all of us, that our creator mixed and spread us equally on this earth in His need to encourage humans for the betterment of oneself and of society as such.
And let me finish now with a few more words about the book we are launching, as it has a long life and history.
I published Requiem for Barbara a long time ago. Precisely 23 years ago, in 2000 in my native country of Croatia. The book received good reviews and an interested readership; the Ministry of Education purchased it and placed the book in all libraries across the country.
The more people that read it, the more often I was asked if there were hidden parts of my own life embedded within the story. People who know me well - my family and close friends - were all convinced that it was a loose memoir about my life. A life that I was in fact living on another continent and feeling all the struggles as a foreigner and young, unknown writer, building their life from scratch. It is an elegy, a sad story about a young female writer who struggles as a single mother in Sydney, without having any kind of help or any family. And after the heavy burden of trying and unfavorable circumstances, she breaks down and ultimately falls terminally ill. When I was writing the story, I was absolutely unaware that a similar destiny was going to befall me. Barbara was a neurotic, artistic woman who utterly adored her daughter; she led a very hermetic life where she never let other people participate. When people used to tell me that I was Barbara, that they could recognize me in her every word, or every deed or emotion, I would just shrug my shoulders, saying, “No, I am not Barbara, she is just a character who happens to be a sensitive writer locked in her own world.”
I think a writer writes about experiences they have lived through and people they have encountered, as this is the ground where they feel the most familiar, hence the most competent. Even when the story is set elsewhere, or in a different historical period, the characters will still have traits of the writer or some of their experiences – real experiences or psychological structures in their mind.
The majority of readers had believed that it was my own story, many even calling me Barbara, but with the passage of time the book slowly went into history, and I was called by the various names of my other female characters. In 2020, exactly 20 years after the first publication of Requiem for Barbara, I got asked to publish it again in a different language, in a different country, so, the book was published in Belgrade, Serbia. My friends and acquaintances who read Requiem for Barbara 20 years ago, re-read the book, and I received emails or messages from people asking the same question: “When are you going to translate this book into English?”
I was never sure if I wanted to translate it, as this story somehow always brought me a profound sadness, for it reflected a time of my life when I was living under lots of emotional stress and adversity. Besides, I had the feeling that I had finished all my dealings with this story and with Barbara herself. But she was a part of me, part of my psyche for many years, and I understood that she needed to live again through new readership. I understood that she was destined to be published and re-published over and over and get a new audience, as if she would gain a new life, a prolonged one, or that she yearned to live forever accessible to many people, in many languages.
In this elegy of mine, each chapter starts with a stanza from the poem ‘Barbara’ by Jacques Prévert, setting the atmosphere where Barbara shows parts of her personality to the reader - being a writer herself, she is a poetic, other-worldly soul who struggles with everyday living in a common world, among the people who don’t have the time to listen to the song of her soul nor hear verses of her poetry.
The rest you will find in the book that has been published for the third time, and hopefully many more times in many more languages.
Guest Blogger Bio
Branka Čubrilo is an international author of eight novels and two short story collections. Branka has lived in Australia, Spain, and Croatia, and has also worked as a radio producer and presenter on SBS Australia, as well as working as an interpreter and translator of several languages. Branka's latest book, Requiem for Barbara, was published in May 2023. Branka's articles and essays and short stories have been published in many online and print magazines. Two years ago, Branka was named one of the top ten writers of literary fiction by her American colleagues in a literary magazine run by the author Caleb Pirtle. All of Branka Čubrilo's work is available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, both in ebook and print editions. Branka's novels published in English include: The Mosaic of the Broken Soul, Flume - The Lost River, Dethroned, Three to Tango & Other Stories, and Requiem for Barbara.
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