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.
... a wry, inventive and ultimately devastating attempt to recover a personal history that war has put forever out of reach ... Rather than trying to weave these stories into a coherent account, Stanisic jumbles genres to reflect how compromised memory is. Where You Come From has its share of quirky, half-true anecdotes of the kind one expects from a memoir ... But Stanisic’s lightness only makes tragedy more devastating when it comes ... Damion Searls’s translation does justice to Stanisic’s dry wit and linguistic playfulness, and captures the tense undercurrents building throughout the book. Though shot through with trauma, Where You Come From is also funny and moving ... Ordinary and accidental, this is the quiet beauty of immigrant life.
Stanisic’s fragmented style effectively mirrors the book’s subject matter. Knowledge is gained piecemeal, drip-fed through Stanisic’s kaleidoscopic prose. He recounts anecdotes, memories and biographical details in simple, matter-of-fact sentences. Sometimes he resorts to lists, WhatsApp conversations, passing observations in the way that memory, too, unfolds in disconnected images and incomplete narratives. Stanisic is a versatile writer and moments of acerbic wit—which recall the razor-sharp commentary of fellow Yugoslav-born author Dubravka Ugresic—are interspersed with poignant descriptions of unbelonging in Germany ... A final act of multiple endings affirms that our lives can never be neatly packaged: reality’s edges are too frayed. A more structurally straightforward finale might have offered something more; the book already does enough to imply that futures are slippery and contingent, more influenced by immigration officers than personal agency. Where Stanisic succeeds is in inviting us to honour and acknowledge what Roland Barthes called the 'what has been', the uncanny evidence of our past; there, we might be able to save our stories from being swept away by the current.
... [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.