Azaleas takes place during the Bosnian War (1992-1995), when Serbian soldiers practiced systematic genocide and raped an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 Bosnian women in “rape camps.” In spite of the violence, Lara and Marija — a Serb and a Bosnian, respectively — remain closer than sisters, even in the face of separation and tragedy. The two meet when both are schoolgirls in Belgrade and become inseprable. As college students, they spend hours in cafés discussing politics and philosophy. When war breaks out, Lara leaves for the United States with her new American husband, Mark, while Marija returns to Sarajevo to become a war reporter behind Bosnian lines. Mark tries to help Lara adapt to American life. Some of the most amusing parts of an otherwise unsettling novel are Lara’s attempts to understand concepts such as stay-at-home mom and take-out food. After having a baby, Lara begins a doctorate at the university and throws herself into her studies. At a conference in Paris, Lara meets a handsome, North African named Karim, with whom she has an affair, leading to a devastating divorce. When Marija surfaces in California, Lara races to join her, but finds her vastly changed. Still gorgeous, wild, and irreverent, Marija now has a glass eye and a reconstructed face. Furthermore, she suffers moments of deep dejection and fits of sobbing. Marija presses Lara to help her find her child born from violent rape.
“When I looked at her,” says Lara, “I saw the full horror of that day in July 1995 displayed glaringly on her face. The gushing of blood, the obscene panting, the muffled screams, flesh, organs, guns, screams begging for death, sighing for death, screaming the sharpest scream across the black earth. It all passed for one second on Marija’s face like an apocalyptic cloud. The next second it was gone.”
Despite some horrific scenes, Country of Red Azaleas is an uplifting and optimistic novel. The strength and determination of both protagonists, their love for one another, and their yearning to create a better future for themselves and their children surpass the traumas they have suffered.