I ambled through the first two or three essays in Aleksandar Hemon’s “The Book of My Lives,” neither attracted nor repelled. Hemon wrote with cadence and clarity, but I didn’t feel pulled into the stories. Then the sadness began.
Hemon grew up in Sarajevo and moved to Chicago just before war broke out. Some of the essays recount his relatively normal childhood, but it’s when he writes about the region’s increasing divisions and political paranoia that the book becomes great. He writes about the importance of human connection and about the isolation of immigrants. His comfort with Chicago grows, and he finds a wife. When that relationship fails, he finds another.
Though I was a teenager during the siege of Sarajevo, I knew nothing about it before reading this book. Hemon’s love for his hometown and its people makes the loss palpable. He writes with tenderness for everyone, but particularly the outcasts.
The final essay is “The Aquarium,” about his 9-month-old daughter’s cancer diagnosis. It is so full of crushing truth that I’m crying an hour after I finished reading it. I cannot fathom the ordeal that Hemon and his family endured, but I do think that there’s a thread that connects every parent who has lost a child. This reverberated: “One of the most common platitudes we heard was that ‘words failed.’ But words were not failing Teri and me at all. … We instinctively protected other people from the knowledge we possessed; we let them think that words failed, because we knew they didn’t want to be familiar with the vocabulary we used daily.”
The essay ran a few years ago in The New Yorker, but rather than reading it online, do yourself a favor and buy this book. Maybe read the last pages when you’re alone, lest you frighten others with your sobbing.