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Nobody's Son: A Memoir


Nobody's Son: A Memoir

“I don’t believe in beginnings. Or endings. I just don’t,” writes Mark Slouka at the end of his latest book, a gorgeously written memoir entitled NOBODY’S SON. The sentiment feels a bit ironic seeing as he’s a writer. But he holds firm and reiterates this point throughout the narrative as he relates the beginnings and endings and in-betweens of the perilous lives of his parents, and his life with them.

Zdenek and Olga Slouka were born in Czechoslovakia in the fragile peace that followed World War I and preceded the rise of the Reich. They married after World War II ended, after his mother’s father hid her in the coal piles of their basement so she wouldn’t be raped by Russian liberators --- those last four words seem like an oxymoron --- and his father was part of the Czech resistance.

When the Communist regime takes power of the small country in 1948, Slouka’s father is alerted to his impending arrest for taking part in the resistance during the war. They have a day or two to flee the country and seek refuge, along with millions of others displaced by the war, liberated from death camps with no homes to return to, or exiled by Communists. Eventually the Sloukas land in Sydney, then Munich, and finally New York, before returning in the twilight of their lives to their native, beloved Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution has effectively quashed their arrest warrants.

"Slouka knows how to craft a book, and in his capable hands...NOBODY’S SON becomes a tour de force.... His prose is beautiful and clever, the occasional hint of self-deprecation slipping in at just the right moment so the reader can hold it together."

There are multiple tales being told in NOBODY’S SON, and they all work in harmony to paint a heartbreaking portrait of the Slouka family’s history. It is not, the author warns early on, a linear story. Rather, it is a collection of memories, some more powerful and pertinent than others, that tell a story of refugees, parents, a child watching his mother slip into the throes of madness, true love found a year too late and lost a week too soon, a country patiently waiting for its oppressors to leave.

Slouka knows how to craft a book, and in his capable hands --- despite his oft-repeated discomfort at writing a memoir --- NOBODY’S SON becomes a tour de force. I read it with a pen in hand, underlining, making notes, starring chapters that had remarkable impact. His prose is beautiful and clever, the occasional hint of self-deprecation slipping in at just the right moment so the reader can hold it together.

Chapter XXXVI, subtly at first and then starkly, relates the plight of the refugee, how you and I don’t think it could happen to us, and then it does. I put the book down for a while after that chapter to let what Slouka had described fully sink into my psyche, to put myself in the shoes of the European refugees standing on a dock in Sydney, Australia in 1949, with nothing to their names but what they could carry, with no country, no homes, no language the local officials could understand. Slouka smartly but briefly references the current refugee crisis, taking the reader out of 1949 and into the present. A nod of recognition.

The heartbreak is palpable. A mother so far inside the darkest recesses of her mind she can no longer respond to the outside world. A father berated and abused by an unhappy wife, living with it for half a lifetime because he can find no other solution. Refugees in the Land of Promise: “They were the exceptions to the American Dream, pieces of the mosaic that didn’t quite fit… This was a different kind of exile, one with few solutions.”

While the heartbreak is more prominent than joy --- “And reality outran the dream. As it sometimes will.” --- moments of happiness find their way through the fog of war, marital hell and exile. Slouka cleverly closes the book with a moment that could be from the past or the present. He doesn’t believe in endings.

Reviewed by Sarah Jackman on October 28, 2016

Nobody's Son: A Memoir
by Mark Slouka

  • Publication Date: October 24, 2017
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 039335475X
  • ISBN-13: 9780393354751