You may have met Anna Burmeister before, when she went by Katrina, but if not, you still have time to catch up.
In Her Own Devices the Swiss expat with a tragic past and an iffy future has put on a few years, not that you’d know that to look at her. She’s called her salvaged two-room flat in Piraeus, Greece home for seven years now, sharing it for the past few with her precocious son Ramadi.
As an anarchist activist, Anna got used to being on the wrong side of the law but, oddly, now inserts herself on both sides of it. After witnessing a street kidnapping that her quick thinking foils, the culprit is caught but is let off on a minor charge that Anna believes the investigating police inspector finagled for a kickback. Outraged, she becomes obsessed with pursuing the trafficker and his equally loathsome partner, starting by watching their house with a hidden camera a friend rigs up, and then courts allies who might or might not come to her aid in a pinch.
Though Anna doesn’t know it, foremost among those friends is the invisible spirit of her son’s late father, Mahmoud Al Ramadi, who died at 22 in Turkey under mysterious circumstances just after Ramadi was conceived. To this day, Anna blames herself for his passing with unslakable remorse.
Consigned to solitary confinement in a featureless limbo somewhere short of Paradise, Mahmoud learns to project his sight to places he knew in life. He spies on Anna and their son as a silent witness, helpless to connect or intervene, wanting the best for them, narrating his thoughts and impressions in plaintive soliloquies that only you can hear.
This young man had a tough life. Door-to-door fighting in Ramadi forced his parents to flee to Mosul with him and his younger brother, Akhmed. After American forces withdrew when Mahmoud was in college, Daesh (Isis) captured the city. Both his parents were executed and Mahmoud fled to Kurdistan not knowing his brother’s fate. Looking for clues, he now trains his spirit-vision on his Iraqi relatives, hoping Akhmed is alive and might someday meet Katrina and his nephew.
Anna is smart and committed but somewhat impulsive in her choice of projects, a sort of mental myopia that her wire-frame glasses can’t correct. But no matter how chimeric her cause, she gives it her all, leaping into the fray without a parachute. Gizzard-Brain, Anna’s name for her abrasive inner critic, regularly chides her for heedlessness, though to little avail. And despite her bullish naivety and qualms, Anna persists. In the end, she comes to understand that you never know who your friends are until you need them, and even then you still might not know, but that’s okay.
Her Own Devices weaves a tense but tender story that’s rooted yet fanciful, layered and languid, arcing to a fateful conclusion. Still a work in progress that’s been shape-shifting for three years, its ultimate embodiment will be published in 2024 by Guernica World Editions. Until then, you’ll have to make do with the prequel, available at the our and other local Bookstores.
Besides the sneak preview, find links to some chapters from the novel and essays about its imagining and construction — plus a bonus reading — on our Excerpts page, and leave a comment, if you’re so moved.
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