For Glasgow-born foreign correspondent-turned-author Kevin Sullivan, the Balkans War was a reality which he lived through, basing himself in Bosnian capital Sarajevo for the vast majority of the longest siege in modern history, which lasted from April 1992 to February 1996. Like last year’s Girl At War by Sara Novac, Sullivan’s novel, The Longest Winter, displays a great deal of knowledge and understanding of a conflict which destroyed the lives of countless Bosnians, Serbs and Croats in the early 1990s, when Europe was enjoying a period of relative peace and prosperity.
Sullivan arrived in the country in 1992, but after only a few months he was injured after driving over a landmine in Sarajevo, and it was while recovering from his injuries after being evacuated from the country by the RAF, and then eventually returning to Sarajevo where he still lives with his Balkan wife, that he began to write the first chapters of The Longest Winter.
His real-life experiences form the basis for the novel, which tells the story of British doctor Terry, American journalist Brad and Milena, a young Bosnian woman who has fled her home to find refuge in Sarajevo. Their stories are initially separate but soon converge as they work together to rescue a desperately ill boy. Sullivan’s writing is at its best when he is describing sights and the atmosphere of a country at war – the ducking under stray bullets as well as the visual effect on the landscape: “When darkness fell, the attackers fired flares over Otes. Great shards of orange light illuminated the fields that separated the settlement from the western suburbs.”
His sense of detail is also finely honed, drawn from his own memories. However, although the story is engaging, the characters – and their thoughts – are often too obviously spelled out.
Although described as a debut novelist, according to his website, Sullivan is a seasoned writer with at least one other published work under his belt and a few more in the pipeline.