Books

Review: Unconventional book 'Skulls of Istria' will 'rattle around in your head'

In 1999, I interviewed Rick Harsch, who graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1995, at his then-home in Oskaloosa. The topic then was the first two books of what would become “The Driftless Trilogy.”

It was a memorable experience all around, but the quote from that interview that returned to me as I was reading Harsch’s new novel, “Skulls of Istria,” (to be released Tuesday) was this: “To my mind, the plot is never the most important thing.”

That’s not to say “Skulls of Istria” doesn’t have a plot. Rather, it has a plot both simple and complex.

The simple part is that the story is structured one man’s tavern confession to a largely insensate audience of one. The complex part is the substance of that confession, which is a concoction of love and sex, impersonal history and deeply personal memory, and ethereal philosophizing and earthy wordplay.

The story can be difficult to follow, but by and large Harsch’s prose carries the reader through the murkier passages.

Our narrator tells his tale in a bar in the former Yugoslavia, and the history of that war-torn area is an essential part of the story.

Harsch highlights the uncertainties of the region and the conflicts and contradictions that have torn it apart.

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As the narrator unspools the tread of his tale, his stream of consciousness ramblings call James Joyce to mind, though “Skulls of Istria” takes us inside its protagonist’s skull for a comparatively slight 152 pages.

The passage that gives the book its title truly is striking, and the book’s ending provides a surprise worthy of noir thriller.

“Skulls of Istria” is unconventional, but its structure, style and story are likely to rattle around in your head long after you close the book.

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