Little bastards in springtime: a novel, by Katja Rudolph

In Katja Rudolph's new novel, a young man attempts to unearth the meaning of life while escaping a civil war and navigating a drug-fuelled world.

Jevrem Andric falls from innocence into the experience of war during the siege of Sarajevo, his young life disintegrating in tandem with the former Yugoslavia. Coming from a mixed ethnic family, he tries desperately to understand how neighbours and family members, once kind and supportive, could turn on each other with hatred, brutality and guns.

His mother, a concert pianist desperately trying to hang on to a life of civility and culture, lives through the siege, as does a grandmother and one of his sisters. His father, brother and one sister do not. Also lost are the sense of an ordered universe and a clear sense of right and wrong. The shattered family immigrates to Canada, but the psychologically wounded Jevrem has trouble creating a new reality. With no trust in authority or institutions, he embarks on a life of crime with a gang of like-minded refugees from home.

He reinvents himself as a superhero helping the poor. He lands in juvenile detention. He hits rock bottom.

As the desire to do good and the need to wreak havoc battle it out in his fragile psyche, Jevrem has helpers along the way — the girl he loves and a well-meaning youth worker, as well as hallucinatory visitations from his dead father and brother. He is also haunted by the memories of his beloved grandmother, a Second World War partisan who fought the Nazis. Each imparts wise words and a vision for a better world. But it's up to Jevrem to decide what it all means and forge a future that makes sense to him.

There is some beautiful, reflective prose here. But the writer is at her best describing extreme situations and emotions. The violence done both by and to Jevrem is palpable, as is his psychological disintegration. We can feel his jangled nerves, tight stomach, adrenalin-fuelled brain and the animal impulses he taps to survive.

On a road trip to redemption he meets more guides — a sleep-deprived student, a real live hippie from back in the day, a meditating truck driver named Big Red. There are many cigarettes to smoke, points of view to consider and philosophical systems to explore.

British-born, Canadian-raised Katja Rudolph is an academic-turned-writer who lives near Toronto. Her conviction about the basic goodness of her protagonist allows us to stay with him even as he does some very bad things. Through it all we're rooting for him to find meaning in the wreckage of his life.

Little Bastards in Springtime is a compelling story that brings to life a brutal civil war most of us experienced only as an item on the news. It also provides a vivid glimpse into a realm rarely seen: the drug-fuelled world of teenage criminals in Toronto the Good. Besides enjoying this well-crafted story, readers may find themselves asking some of life's big questions along with Jevrem. And each will have, no doubt, his or her own answers.