The protestations of two people who claim not to know their own motives frame the opening of A Partisan's Daughter, a novel whose tidiness becomes a provocation. During a winter in the late '70s, Chris, a married solicitor who dismissively refers to his wife as "The Great White Loaf," heads for a dodgy area of London to find a prostitute, just to say he's seen one. At the same time, Roza, a bored Yugoslavian, decides to get dressed "cheap" and lurk in the streets for fun. Roza's glee in correcting her solicitor's mistake when he pulls over fails to explain the exact nature of the thrills she sought, or why she tells him how much she allegedly used to charge for the service he claims not to be seeking.

The discrepancy set up right away by this gap propels A Partisan's Daughter, which gracefully frustrates a resolution to this meet-ugly. Backing away from an image of himself as a john, Chris offers Roza a ride home and becomes the captive audience to a series of continent-spanning tales of her upbringing and journey to London. True, her father is a disappointed Communist and Tito supporter, which itself makes her exotic to him. But her background isn't just a point of reference for Chris, it's a conduit through which they both slip into a strange codependency. And the few chapters she narrates indicate that she's smarter and less helpless than he'd like to see her—a narrative shading that throws her entire account into question.

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The author of Corelli's Mandolin is almost unrecognizable in this slim volume devoid of the plump prose with which de Bernières upholstered his wartime romance. Chris and Roza, left to their own plain speaking, attain a timelessness: When he describes his first encounter with her, it comes out in the clearly self-contradictory "You can call it love, if that's what suits. I think that's what I would call it." Ultimately, Roza's stories, regardless of their accuracy, captivate Chris, who struggles with whether he wants to save her or sleep with her. The emphasis on how out of touch he is with her modern world becomes unnecessary: His fascination with Roza and the consequences of his ambivalence, regardless of his declared ardor, can neither fully redeem nor destroy him.