Most of us observe wars; some of us know them. In the first pages of Amela Marin's remarkable parable of loss and endurance, we meet a young mother, Nina, who awakes one night to what sounds like thunder. She goes to her window to find a black snow falling. She catches a flake that has scraps of words on it and fails to melt in her palm. There is a glow of flames over the city. Her two children wake up, run to the window and recoil in fear.
Anything can happen in fables. A narrator might pop in and out like a Greek chorus. Children can be transported in pockets. And so, Nina tucks little Ada and Dino safely therein and then considers pocketing her entire home as well, but fears that the weight of it will make her unable to move. "Perhaps I'll just take a few things, in case I forget who I am along the way. I will have these glimpses into my past and create new and interesting stories around them." (Here the narrator opines on her foolishness.)
Nina steps outside and sees chaos: people running and screaming, shells falling, an old woman calmly carrying a cadaverous baby amid the explosions. Her husband is nearby with a group of men brandishing guns and liquor, vowing to fight "so that we can love again."
Nina determines to walk with her children to the sea, but finds she can't escape the besieged city. In their wanderings along the barbed-wire perimeter, they meet a motley cast of war-zone survivors and opportunists: a trio of peevish "life advisers"; a man who gives them a suitcase full of food; a manipulative war photographer. Meanwhile, Nina finds she is able to leap over the siege barriers if she divests herself of the weighty children in her pockets. She does so with trepidation and returns quickly from her forays for food and reconnaissance. A wounded soldier happens by, his forehead pierced with a neat bullet hole, his pockets full of cherries for the children. A man at a piano plays to evoke inner visions of beauty amid the devastated landscape.
They manage to leave the city and set out overland toward the sea. It has been said they must climb a mountain first. In its foothills they encounter a man tinkering with piles of rusty machinery beside a faded sign: "Abandon h****, all ye who climb the mountain." Nina interprets the sketchy "h" word as "hope," but is corrected: "It is hatred I ask people to leave behind." The tinker believes that his machinery, perfected, will turn bullets into balloons and bring paradise to Earth. The children quickly puncture his rosy vision: "Can you make a machine that turns stinky farts into fragrant flowers?"
Marin's epigraph quotes Antoine de Saint Exupéry's The Little Prince. There is a whimsical thread of that influence woven through the story, but Marin's subject is darker, her punch firmer, her humour more keenly edged. Do Nina and her children attain a measure of peace? It seems they might, though with no help from the Humanitarian Aid post offering tips on how to cook larks and flamingoes - or from the Duke of Arcadia, who pauses to give Ada a tin of caviar while busily en route to "save the pandas." He even includes a note: "We are proud of your suffering."
Disclosure: I interviewed Amela Marin 10 years ago in the course of some research and have since seen her occasionally at book events. She has lived what she writes about. Reading The Sea, it's impossible not to recall wars at which you've gawked sadly on TV, and to feel in your bones that sometimes diplomats and peacemakers may almost be as culpable as the warlords they fail to stop.
Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.