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Fiction War & Military

Between Mountains

by (author) Maggie Helwig

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Mar 2005
War & Military, Literary, Contemporary
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2005
    List Price

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A spellbinding, profound novel from one of Canada’s most accomplished poets, Between Mountains sets a heart-rending love story amidst the aftermath of the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Daniel, a Canadian journalist, has been living in Bosnia for ten years, long after most correspondents have moved on to other global “hotspots.” On a visit to Paris he meets Lili, a Serbian-Albanian interpreter at The Hague, entrusted with hearing and telling the stories of victims and perpetrators of brutality. Their lives intersect at the trial of a man accused of war crimes, interviews with whom have formed the bedrock of Daniel’s career.

Peripatetic, driven people, Lili and Daniel are also both damaged by the horrific things they have witnessed. Each hopes to find in the other some kind of understanding, and in impossible circumstances they are drawn into an affair which could destroy everything they have worked for.

Reminiscent of The Quiet American and Fugitive Pieces, Between Mountains is at once a complex love story and a gripping novel of war and politics. Exquisitely written and vividly imagined, it explores issues of the greatest human importance within an intensely intimate landscape.

He paused in the doorway of the hotel, automatically charting the safest route. There was a little bar across the street that would probably make him an omelette in mid-afternoon, and he found himself calculating that there was not much exposed ground to cross, then forcing himself to remember that this was Paris, that there were no snipers in the neighbouring buildings, not for now at any rate. -- from Between Mountains

About the author

Maggie Helwig has published six books of poetry (most recently, One Building in the Earth), two books of essays, a collection of short stories and two previous novels, Where She Was Standing and Between Mountains. She is the events and sponsorship coordinator for the Scream Literary Festival. She also works for the Social Justice and Advocacy Board of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto.

Maggie Helwig's profile page

Excerpt: Between Mountains (by (author) Maggie Helwig)

The Zone of Separation

July 13, 1999
It was just before dawn when the trucks began to move. Behind the city the hills were barely visible, black masses in an indigo sky.

A stray dog darted for cover as headlights broke the darkness. Some distance away, a helicopter rose, hovered.

The trucks turned to create roadblocks at key intersections. Men climbed down with machine-guns in their arms. At several points across the city this occurred.

A small brown-haired man was sitting at the window of his hotel room, a laptop balanced on his knees. He was drinking instant coffee from a plastic cup, awkwardly, holding it by the rim so that he wouldn’t burn his fingers. It was exceptionally bad coffee. When he heard the engines, he put the cup on the floor, pushed aside the sheer white curtain and saw two of the trucks, passing in front of the apartment block across the street. He watched until they turned a corner and were gone. Setting the laptop down beneath his chair, he picked up a digital camera and a laminated card on a metal chain and hung them around his neck.

In the deserted silence of the early morning, he could hear his own footsteps on the hotel’s worn green carpet. The plaster walls were cracked and swollen with damp. At the front desk the night clerk, a thin teenager, was reading a movie magazine with furious concentration, twirling a bit of dark hair around her finger. Her eyes flicked briefly towards him as he passed, but she didn’t raise her head. Outside, the streets were empty; then he heard the rumble of another truck, and stood against the wall as it passed. When it turned west at the corner, he followed.

At the edge of the park, he saw the light of a single taxi, as the driver started the engine and turned the car away, avoiding what might be trouble. Walking under a canopy of oak trees, the reporter listened for the sound of the heavier motors, and turning the next corner he found them, one truck parked sideways across the intersection, a very young, very tall soldier standing beside it. The young man gestured sharply towards him. The reporter raised the card and pointed to it, mouthing “Press” without making a sound.

“Go home,” said the young man, in accented English. Was he German? Dutch? His accent was soft, and in the dark it was hard to make out the flag on his shoulder. The reporter peered around the broad khaki chest, and saw, about halfway up the street, a knot of soldiers gathering in front of a small block of flats. With a single sharp movement, one man kicked the door in, and the others poured through the gap. A light flickered on in a neighbouring building, and quickly went out again.

“Who are you after?” asked the reporter.

“I told you, go home. Nothing for you to do here.”

“Always something for me to do,” he smiled. But this soldier was too young, he took himself seriously. He was impressed with the gravity of his mission, and instinctively certain that the press must be unwelcome.

“How many times I have to tell you to go home? You only put yourself in danger.”

“Is he dangerous, then, the man you want?”

“They all are dangerous. What do you suppose?”

Other motors were idling, a street or two away.

“Is it more than one tonight? Sounds like more than one.”

“You can think of any reason I should tell you?”

From inside the building there was a muffled shout, but only one. No gunshots. Then the soldiers were out the door again, a heavy grey-haired man walking stiffly between them. A soldier pushed him down onto his knees, another yanked his arms behind his back, twisted plastic handcuffs around his wrists.

The reporter whistled. “Wow,” he said softly. “You finally came for him.” He lifted the camera and shot around the Dutch—probably Dutch—soldier’s body. The young man scowled but made no move to stop him. “That was stupid,” he said.

They were pushing the man into one of the trucks. The sound of the helicopter was louder, rising over the rooftops. The young soldier turned away, looking back with a quick warning shake of his head, and the trucks were gunning their engines, moving fast, not worried about noise now, up the street and out of sight.

The reporter stood at the corner and waited. A few lights came on, curtains twitched. One head appeared at a third-floor window, then vanished again. The lights, one by one, went out. He was thinking of going back to the hotel when he heard gunfire, down beyond the park. A pistol first. Then machine-guns responding.

His body reacted, tossing him into a doorway, his face pressed into the stone surround. He still dropped to the ground, sometimes, when he simply heard a door slam; real gunfire was an instant return to the years of the siege. The noise only lasted a few seconds but he stood longer, his arms flexed, sweat trickling down his neck. But this was nothing too new or strange. Nothing you couldn’t get used to.

There were distant voices, agitated. He moved forward carefully, his body still close against the walls. The sky was paler now, a bruised wet blue, the shapes of the city emerging from darkness. He ducked across the street towards the park, heard cars driving away. At the intersection of the main street he stopped.

No one was there any more, but even in the half-light of dawn the pools of blood were unmistakable. He looked around the empty sidewalks, raised the little camera again.

A man appeared round the opposite corner and crossed over. He too saw the blood, and quickly turned away, pushing his hands deeper into his pockets.

“Excuse me,” said the reporter, speaking in Bosnian. “Do you know what happened?”

The man looked at him. “Something bad,” he replied in English. “Something bad happened here.”

* * * * *
The helicopters rose, turned. They moved swiftly over the hills and rivers of the small country. They carried soldiers and equipment. They carried a prisoner, a dead man and a dying man. The hills were green; rough and pretty in the early morning. The dying man flailed with one arm, not knowing what he meant to say, pink foam on his lips. There were medical supplies on the helicopter, they were flying towards a hospital, but they would not be able to save him. The dead man lay unattended, covered by a tarp.

Between the hills of this country, men and women were digging. They pushed through the heavy earth, wearing boots and overalls and wide-brimmed hats. You wouldn’t have thought, if you saw them there by the pine trees, that they were police officers. They might have been digging up orange and sky-blue frescoes, the bull dance at the palace of Knossos. Bowls of hardened grains, parched and dessicated meats and fruits. Ivory-handled knives, small bells, leather belts. They might have been digging up little models of horses for children to play with, or goddess figurines holding handfuls of snakes, or hammers and awls.

The dying man closed his eyes, the morphine entering his bloodstream. A great peace. All his fears and burdens lifted away and he moved gently towards sleep. He felt such relief. Surely, now, everything was all right.

A few moments later his heart stopped.

In the trenches they were digging up bodies, partly rotted, the flesh beginning to melt together. The photographs, later, would have a strange beauty, the tangled arms and legs, clothing and hair and bones, emerging from mud as if it was clay and they were art, something sculptural. But the women and men digging up the bodies were only aware of the smell. They would shower two, three, four times a day, but their own skin and hair would still smell sweet and corrupt like decaying flesh, and when they went into town people would move away from them in the shops and cafés.

They would separate the bodies carefully, drawing them out one by one, trying to ensure that limbs and pieces of flesh did not fall loose. Whole bodies when they could, then parts of bodies. The backpacks, leather jackets, running shoes. Wallets and small change, photographs eaten away by water. A cat’s-eye marble. The blindfolds. The bits of rope that had tied the wrists.

Out of the dark earth we draw the forms of our desire. And here as well. This too was human desire, the sight of those bodies in the trench. The bearded men who lined other men up at the edge would have said, as they opened fire, that they wanted only the things that everyone wants.

A man pinned under his son’s dead body in the mud.

The helicopter rises, passing above the graves on the hillsides.

Something bad happened here.

Editorial Reviews

"[Helwig’s] political commitment adds unusual forcefulness to this eloquent combination of war report, courtroom drama and love story. The subject is inevitably grim, but the story is so well structured, the writing so elegant, that it manages to be enjoyable as well as moving, an easy though never light read."
Sunday Telegraph
"In Between Mountains . . . [Helwig] explores the less well-traveled road of post-war horrors, when nightmares return to haunt those who have witnessed or perpetrated them."
Books in Canada

"Helwig achieves a rare weave with Between Mountains. … an unexpected pleasure are the sections on translation. Leave it to the author of seven volumes of poetry to describe the act of changing languages so that it seems as dangerous and thrilling as the work of a California firefighter, with twice as many split-second decisions. …"
Quill & Quire

"The depth of her understanding — both of Balkan particulars and universal human flaws — fills this book with moving scenes and striking perceptions."
The Globe and Mail

"A profound novel."
Winnipeg Free Press

"This is a stunning novel from a new voice, a deserving contender for this year’s prize shortlists."
Ink (UK)

"One of Maggie Helwig’s many accomplishments in this astonishing novel is her ability to render murderers, victims, and helpless bystanders as equally human. Her political intelligence and spiritual generosity make Between Mountains both a profound gesture of remembrance, as well as a deeply moving work of art."
—Michael Redhill, author of Martin Sloane

"Maggie Helwig’s novel puts a human face to the criminal destruction of a place once called Yugoslavia. She reminds us that war ravages the souls of all who find themselves caught in its grasp, including journalists from afar; and of the healing power of love."
—Erna Paris, author of Long Shadows
"When guns and flags stop talking, writers come to heal. Between Mountains is a rare novel about the repercussions of war. From Helwig’s beautiful novel one can learn more about honesty, passion for truth and love than from almost any other book on the tragic conflict in the Balkans."
—Goran Simic, author of Immigrant Blues
"A passionate and poetic love story which never flinches from its task of exploring the way history compromises our lives."
—Ben Richards, author of The Mermaid and the Drunks
Praise for Maggie Helwig:
"[Helwig is a] passionate observer and witness to the world around her."
Broken Pencil

"An inventive, intelligent, and unorthodox thinker."

"Helwig knows the precise details that render a scene true."
Quill & Quire

"Helwig’s strength is to take concrete subjects and generalize about the mystery of what it is to be human."
Malahat Review

Other titles by Maggie Helwig