In this autofictional winner of the German Book Prize, a man looks back on his family's escape to Germany during the 1990s war in Yugoslavia, exploring questions about language and shame, arrival and making it just in time, luck and death and the role our origins and memories play in our lives.
... [an] often brilliant novel ... honed and considered, more in control of its material [than Stanišić’s previous book]. It is, at least at first, almost straightforward ... wonderfully alive, vital in its depiction of family life ... It is a refractive prism, this deep delve into the past, so often leading to altered or misleading truths from established facts ... The fallibility of memory is a well-worn trope, but Stanišić’s understanding of how memory can affect the contours of the present is consistently surprising. For all the hatred that stirred the Bosnian war, the overwhelming, sometimes overheated, sense in Where You Come From is love ... The book’s conclusion, though, is a bravura, sustained and singular piece of writing that bursts with wit, heart and empathy. Tricksy as an extended Choose Your Own Adventure section might appear, it brings the novel together as a totality, delivering multiple endings, all of which land deftly in Damion Searls’s excellent translation.
... a playful, formally adventurous novel that freely blends truth and fiction in its meditation on homelands ... The line between novel and memoir is frequently blurred, with the novel mimicking his grandmother's surreal existence as her dementia progresses and the past increasingly intrudes on the present. In perhaps the novel's most enjoyable—and melancholy—surprise, it includes a branching choose-your-own-adventure with a variety of endings and fantastical digressions ... the author's earnestness [is] both undercut and reinforced by humor ... The novel is determined to surprise and unmoor readers, perhaps in the same way the author/protagonist found the course of his own life surprising and disconcerting, with the author's restless imagination a constant, delightful companion.
Where You Come From has arguably been overpraised in Germany, where it won a major national book prize, but it’s understandable that a rattled liberal establishment would want to celebrate its implied politics of tolerance, post-nationalism and integration. At times, Stanišić’s tone resembles a Der Spiegel editorial ... Stanišić enjoys including lists, lyrics, transcripts and assorted documentary titbits as he muses on the experiences of exile and assimilation, shame and family. A mild, fairly likable narrator, Saša is most engaging when discussing either his efforts to adjust to German life or his earlier, youthful adventures as the fog of war came rolling towards his homeland. Parts of the book read like a family photo album, interesting or not depending on how curious we are about another person’s grandparents, uncles, cousins ... The book’s final third is its weakest ... the novel morphs into a Choose Your Own Adventure story ... it’s a nice idea, but its emotional core—the death of a man’s grandmother—is not enough to carry the formal whimsy, and so it becomes a slightly irritating frippery. Where You Come From is most rewarding when it cleaves closest to straightforward memoir: a story about place and displacement, where you begin and where you end up, and how much—and in what way—this matters.