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BOOK REVIEW: Survivors by Salo Maa Neco

Reviewer: James Lowe

Is it the journey or the destination that makes a holiday on one of the Croatian islands such a delight? Is it a story’s plot or its setting, or maybe its characters that makes a comforting summertime read? Ciovo, Korcula, Hvar, Vis… they twinkle like a mischievous little boy’s eyes as if they could have an intriguing story to tell. With a robust coffee at hand, sitting in one of the many charming coastal town squares, I read a paragraph in Salo Maa Neco’s recently published novel Survivors:

…it was the romance of the house’s tiled roof, its Venetian spires and a Madonna carved into an alcove on the top floor looking out over the town’s piazza. She seemed, in an odd way, to be staring at the other, bigger Madonna, the one overlooking the hillside cemetery. I fancied that they argued across the piazza, the religious Madonna and the smaller, not-so-religious one. My one.
I realised I was there, sitting in the very story I was reading. She was up there, looking down at me; that glaring Madonna and I thought, ‘yes, this book is a mischievous grinning boy with a raised eyebrow’ and don’t those boys always tell the best stories?

Survivors tells the story of a boy, Aleks, and a man, the book’s narrator, both outsiders living in an island community cut off from the mainland by a measles quarantine. Their inconvenient quarantine however becomes their saviour, protecting them and all the island’s residents from a pandemic that decimates the world population. It’s fiction of course. I know that. But that Madonna’s glare… it feels real. I’m in Salo Maa Neco’s story. He writes gently, begging the reader to read slowly, savouring the story like we do our wine. For example, the story begins:
I watched a man die this afternoon. I can tell you, after this week, it felt good. We’ve seen a lot of people die in the last six years and each one of them was a catastrophe. But seeing today’s death, up close, was deeply satisfying for me. I won’t say I enjoyed it, but right now, sitting in our town’s piazza with a glass of red wine and some bread and cheese, with the sun’s last rays warming my face and knowing my son’s safe with his friends, I’m feeling very satisfied. Content.

What do others think about when they’re sipping their coffee at the riva? How peaceful and safe and far away from the world’s troubles we are here in Dalmatia? Global meltdown and where would be the best place to be when it happens? Would you survive? Would surviving be enough? How comfortable would your life be? Could you live without coffee, freshly baked bread and blackberry jam? And banks? And law and order? And anesthetic? And what does living mean?

Survivors is at times a cruel and hard account of human nature as it could be. But it’s hopeful too. I found myself wondering what I would do if this fiction became my fact. What would I do if I were on this safe little Dalmatian island and confronted by strangers in our harbour? This is the literary question posed by Survivors. They appear to be friendly, but ‘we’ can’t take the risk. They want our help, but if they’re diseased we will all die. Sitting in my local skor, reading Survivors, with that Madonna glaring down at me, I simply could not help putting myself into this story, into this community and feeling the fear.

The island is idyllic: lemon orchards, honey, crayfish, mussels and freshly baked bread. And the sweet scent of rosemary and lavender and just-picked blackberries. They’re not friendly, the people who sailed into the harbour. They want to take some of the island’s young people and that’s when the fighting begins. Out-gunned and out-smarted by the intruders, the islanders turn on Aleks and the others who happened to be on the island when the quarantine was imposed, offering them as sacrifices to save their own children.

I really did smell the island as I read. Salo Maa Neco sat me next to Aleks at the top of the island, staring through a rifle’s sights at a sailor’s head. I felt Aleks’ fear when sharks circled him after the fishing boat he was on capsized and he was dragged under. And I felt the deep animal-anger when the people he’d finally come to call family turned on him, offering him to the intruders like he was a vegetable to be bartered. And in the end, at the end, I too felt content.

Survivors by Salo Maa Neco, 200 pages, $5.99, Amazon.com.

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