Black Cat
Black Cat
Black Cat


A Novel

by Ismet Prcic

“Impressive . . . Inventive . . . Pushes against convention, logic, chronology . . . Ambitious and deep . . . [Prcic] succeeds at writing an unsettling and powerful novel.” —Dana Spiotta, New York Times Book Review

  • Imprint Black Cat
  • Page Count 416
  • Publication Date October 04, 2011
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-7081-1
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $18.00

About The Book

Ismet Prcic’s brilliant and provocative debut novel is about a young Bosnian, also named Ismet Prcic, who has fled his war-torn homeland and is now struggling to reconcile his past with his present life in California. He is advised that in order to move forward he must “write everything.” The result is a great rattle bag of memories, confessions, and fictions: sweetly humorous recollections of Ismet’s childhood in Tuzla appear alongside anguished letters to his mother about the challenges of life in this new world. And as Ismet’s foothold in the present falls away, his writings are further complicated by stories from the point of view of another young man—real or imagined—named Mustafa, who joined a troop of elite soldiers and stayed in Bosnia to fight. When Mustafa’s story begins to overshadow Ismet’s New World identity, the reader is charged with piecing together the fragments of a life that has become eerily unrecognizable, even to the one living it.

Shards is a thrilling read—a harrowing war story, a stunningly original coming-of-age novel, and a heartbreaking saga of a splintered family. Remarkable for its propulsive energy and stylistic daring, Shards marks the debut of a gloriously gifted writer.

Tags Literary


“Impressive . . . Inventive . . . Pushes against convention, logic, chronology . . . Ambitious and deep . . . [Prcic] succeeds at writing an unsettling and powerful novel.” —Dana Spiotta, New York Times Book Review

“Irresistible . . . Fierce, funny, and real.” —Teresa Budasi, Chicago Sun-Times

“So gripping and shaking that there will be no casual readers of this book.” —Y. S. Fing, Washington Independent Review of Books

“Fierce, funny and real, it also says much about war, exile, guilt and fear.” —Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun Times

“Brilliant . . . With verbal glee, Prcic serves up a darkly comic vision of the terrors and misunderstandings of immigration. Tight, glorious little tales-within-tales abound, rattled off with a quick, artless naturalism. . . . The writing is packed with one original metaphor after another, language that’s almost drunk with colorful, startling images. . . . Brimming with scraps of memory, regrets, and rationalizations, Shards leaves an indelible scar on the reader’s imagination. Prcic has pieced together a young man’s story from the torn and exploded remains of his former life, and the sheer power of his language leaves the reader shaken.” —Nick DiMartino, Shelf Awareness

“Powerful, gorgeous writing—complicated without a hint of intellectual grandstanding. This novel is a difficult treasure.” —Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Awards Committe

“A brilliant debut that manages to be both experimental and emotionally resonant. Comparisons to that other Bosnian-American writer, Aleksandar Hemon, will be unavoidable, but Prcic’s work is completely and wholly his own. Shards will come to be seen as the definitive novel of the Bosnian war and its resultant diaspora.” —Philipp Meyer, author of American Rust

“The reason this novel is so good, hard, beautiful, and disturbing is that there is more than one Ismet delivering the many sharp pieces. Shards feels like a primary document torn from life by a powerful new talent.” —Ron Carlson, author of The Signal and Five Skies

“Prcic captures the insanity of war and its unceasing aftermath.” —Publishers Weekly

“This novel moves at light speed, with shattering immediacy, through the parallel universe lives of two young Bosnian men—who may, in fact, be one person. Like fear, it will make you open your ears.” —Rae Armantrout, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Versed

“Brutally vivid . . . Shards [rings] true.” —Emily Harris, The Oregonian

“Experimental and brutal and heart-wrenching . . . You just give in to it, as you do when reading someone like Faulkner. . . . What makes Shards so compelling is, first of all, the language . . . which has an almost ferocious beauty. Secondly, and as important, is the organization of the book, which gives it a sense of urgency. . . . Ismet’s confusion is so vivid that it becomes ours, making us participants in this story. . . . To have had such a life when you are so young is hard to convey without becoming sentimental or pathetic, yet Prcic has done it brilliantly.” —Roberta Silman, The Arts Fuse blog

“Innovative in form and startling in its storytelling, Shards is a brilliant debut novel from Ismet Prcic.” —Largehearted Boy blog

“A playful but heartfelt debut . . . Brightly detailed . . . [Prcic is] a spirited, soulful talent.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Ismet Prcic has taken apart the complexities of war, love, family and home and scattered them across a novel that is as heartbreaking as it is beautiful. . . . [Shards] is an original work of art, brutal and honest, and absolutely unforgettable.” —Dinaw Mengestu, author of How to Read the Air

“A passionate heart beats in these pages devoted to the reassembling of a life sundered by war. Ismet Prcic’s debut novel Shards is an outsized, outrageous, outstanding performance.” —Christine Schutt, author of All Souls

“Ismet Prcic’s prose is a gleaming pinball kept in inexhaustible play, kinetically suspended in time and space, endlessly flung away from its inevitable ending, colliding with memory and invention. This is writing fed by skill, inertia, horror, and sorrow, a survivor’s story of triumph and guilt. Yet Prcic’s sensibility is at once brutally and tenderly comic. Humanity seems to run deepest among those who have survived its near-absence in the world.” —Brad Watson, author of The Heaven of Mercury and Aliens in the Prime of their Lives

“[A] heartbreaking, rude, surprisingly compassionate, and still violent story about a Bosnian refuge who is trying to make sense of his new life in southern California . . . You’re not going to find many sentences in any book, anywhere, like the sentences you find here. . . . Prcic makes use of preposterous and somehow dead-on analogies and allusions, profanities and profundities. He celebrates the hieroglyphs of punctuational tics, smears words, elevates typefaces, deploys footnotes, diary entries, memoirisms, blasphemy, theater, treachery, vulgarisms, and it works. . . . This book cannot be explained. It is to be experienced. Sentence by sentence, scene by scene.” —Beth Kephart (blog)

“Compelling, sensual detail . . . Prcic’s prose is effective both at delineating the psychological nuances of his characters, and the sometimes-dodgy circumstances of the outside world. . . . There is a strain of dark humor running throughout, and an elastic joy in storytelling and linguistic expression that prevents this from being a simple recitation of atrocities and pain. . . . Well-written and thought-provoking . . . The story it tells is as unique and individual as the author who penned it.” —David Maine, PopMatters

“The experience of reading Shards—the deliberate disorientation, the layering and morphing of events that characterize the book—reveals in a more visceral way what it might be like to live always with a full awareness of the tenuousness of civil society, of the terrible precariousness of calm.” —Margaux Wexberg Sanchez, St. Louis Beacon


Winner of the Ken Kessey Oregon Book Award
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
A Chicago Sun-Times Best Book of the Year
A B&N Discover Great New Writers Selection
An Oregonian Top 10 Northwest Book of the Year
Shortlisted for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Award
Shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize
Shortlisted for the William Saroyan Prize for Writing


In wartime, when his country needed him the most—his shooting finger for defending, his body for a shield, his sanity and humanity as a sacrifice for future generations, his blood for fertilization of its soil—in these, most pressing times, Mustafa’s special forces combat training lasted twelve days. He ran the obstacle course exactly twenty-four times, he threw fake hand grenades through a truck tire from various distances exactly six times, he practiced marksmanship with an air rifle so that bullets were not wasted, he got covered with blankets and beaten by his peers for talking in his sleep at least once. He did countless push-ups and sit-ups, chin-ups and squats, lunges and curls, mindless repetitions designed not to make him fit but to break him, so that when he did break, the drill sergeant could instruct him in the ways of military hierarchy and make him an effective combatant, one who was too scared to not follow orders and who would fucking die when he was told to fucking die.

The knife guy taught him where to stick the knife for what effect and he stabbed hanging sacks of sand with people drawn on them. The mine guy showed him how to set up antivehicle mines and pointed out all their deadly charms. The army doctor took a swig of plum brandy and told him that war was a giant piece of shit and that he, Mustafa, was a chunk of corn in that shit and then warned him not to come to his office again until he had a gut wound so big he could canoe right through it. That was about it.

Reading Group Guide

1. The author begins the book with two epigraphs: an excerpt from Hamlet, in which the hero gives advice to the players, and lines from a poem by Iraqi writer Saadi Youssef. How do both epigraphs speak to the themes of the book? Might they be taken together as the author’s statement of purpose? Are there similarities between Ismet’s and Hamlet’s preoccupations? And perhaps also Asmir’s, who quotes from Hamlet’s advice to the players (p. 106)? Where else in the book does the image of shards recur?

2. Shards plays with the conventions of both the novel and memoir, with Ismet acting as the novel’s hero as well as the author of the memoir within it. How is this layering of fiction and nonfiction elements essential to the larger story? Ismet writes in his diary that as he was working on his memoir “things—little fictions—started to sneak in. I agonized over them, tried to eradicate them from the manuscript, but it made the narrative somehow less true” (p. 22). How might these inventions make his story more true?

3. Why is Ismet more affected by seeing what he thinks is Mustafa Nalic’s grave than by seeing his own cousin’s (p. 168)? How much of Mustafa’s existence has Ismet imagined and what purpose do his imaginings serve? Does Mustafa help give shape to the pain of war that Ismet experiences? How do their life stories intertwine and then fuse together at the end?

4. The novel alternates between Ismet’s stories (told in the first person point of view) and Mustafa’s stories (told in third person) and jumps forward and backward in time. How would the meaning of the story change if it were told chronologically using only one point of view? Why has the author chosen to tell some parts of the story in the second person point of view (see sections beginning on pp. 78, 313, and 378)?

5. How does the author establish the setting as uniquely Bosnian? What do you learn about the culture? About family life and gender roles? About village life and values (see pp. 85-93)? About the role of religion in daily life? About the politics of the region and the war? How much of the story depends on this particular setting and how could it be seen as a coming-of-age story that might be set anywhere?

6. Notebooks, diaries, and letters are the forms the author employs to tell Ismet’s story. How might a writer’s tone, choice of content, and level of honesty be different in each form? How do Ismet’s word choices and tone of voice help establish his character? Ismet is very self-aware, but are there things he doesn’t see about himself?

7. How does Ismet develop a sense of identity as he grows up—what distinguishes him in his own mind from others? How does his sense of identity change when he leaves Bosnia and becomes “Izzy” in America? How does Ismet situate himself in relation to his fellow refugees arriving at the airport? Ismet contemplates his friend Eric’s existence and then thinks about his own on p. 43. Do you think his dreams of belonging and being anonymous can ever be reconciled?

8. How has Ismet’s awareness of his mother’s unhappiness and fragility helped shape him? What are his mother’s strengths? Does Ismet’s relationship with his mother change as he matures? Consider the symbolic implications of Ismet’s cat/person dream (p. 342). What do you think his mother wants to tell him that she cannot bring herself to write in her letter?

9. Ismet’s first two girlfriends, Asya and Allison, pursue him and he leaves them both. Does his relationship with Melissa represent a change? What attracts him to each of these women? What does he learn through his relationships with them?

10. As war is brewing, fifteen-year-old Ismet tells his mother, “I thought we were all Yugoslavs,” then wonders why he’s broached a question he already knows the answer to: “Maybe the Communist message of Brotherhood and Unity had been so thoroughly drummed into my head that it surfaced robotically and overrode my actual experience” (p. 6). Does this awareness of doublespeak and propaganda contribute to Ismet’s comedic sense and ironic detachment? Return to Ismet’s description of Tuzla’s architecture and the naming of its municipal offices (pp. 97-98)—what picture do you get of Bosnia’s Communist legacy and its effects on its citizens’ approaches to life?

11. Can Ismet’s childhood experiences of faking appendicitis (pp. 34-36) and directing the ninja high jinks in the forest (pp. 51-56) be seen as his first experiments in theater? What does he learn from them and how does his relationship to acting deepen with his membership in the theater troupe? When Ismet and the others stage an impromptu tableau vivant in the park and the shelling starts (pp. 110-111), how does their act take on larger meaning?

12. Ismet relates Asmir’s theory that ‘democracy is not the way of the theater and if theater is to be worthy there is lots to be learned from dictatorships’ (p. 101). What sort of tactics does Asmir use to achieve successful performances? Do they echo the humiliation and submission tactics Mustafa endures in military life? How is the power struggle between Brada and Asmir described (pp. 105-108)?

13. Can Asmir be seen as an alternative father figure? What does Ismet admire about him? How is Asmir, though charismatic, also flawed, like Ismet’s father? Do you have any sympathy for his father?

14. How are Bosnian Serbs depicted in the book? What sort of neighbors are the Stojkovics? What sort of person is Nebojsha, the Chetnik who surrenders himself in Mustafa’s trench (pp. 206-210)? When Mustafa (existing in some fusion with Ismet in this chapter) realizes he’s at a party with a bunch of Chetnik-supporting Serbs in California, why doesn’t he leave immediately (pp. 317-330)? What is his attitude toward Jovan?

15. Ismet explains that the war “had begun with politicians fighting on television, talking about their nationalities, their constitutional rights, each claiming that his people were in danger” (p. 6). The television is on throughout the book, including at important moments, as when Ismet’s family talks with him about immigrating to America (pp. 183-185). How does TV affect Ismet’s experience not only of the war but of his daily life?

16. Why do you think Mustafa’s special forces unit chose to call itself the Apaches? What distinguishes the Apaches from the regular army? How does Mustafa come to identify himself with his given name, “meat”?

17. How does the book investigate the boundary between what is real and what is unreal? Does war make this boundary less stable? Ismet asks in his diary, “How is it that I can exist in both the past and the present simultaneously, be both body and soul simultaneously, live both reality and fantasy simultaneously?” (p. 40). Does Ismet ever make peace with this sense of doubleness?

18. In what ways does the book’s form mirror its content? What are some examples of the splintering, and examples of reassembling as they appear within the novel? How are these processes embodied by the novel’s structure itself?

19. Eric plays Tom Waits for Ismet on his birthday, and he writes in his diary, “It was then, mati, that love was born in Izzy for America, for its sadness and madness, for its naivete and wisdom, for its vastness, its innumerable nooks where a person can disappear” (p. 43). Are your own feelings of affection for particular countries influenced by those countries’ artistic contributions? For what reason does Ismet say he wishes Lendo had allowed his theater troupe to travel to Scotland (p. 175)?

20. How do you interpret the epigraph from Samuel Beckett that precedes Notebook Two (p. 311)? How might wanting a story for oneself be a mistake? Ismet writes in his diary, “One thing about forcing a life into a story is that you become a character and when the story ends you do, too’ (p. 339). What role does storytelling play in your understanding of your own life? Is there a way in which you feel as though you become a character when you narrate your experiences to others?

21. Ismet flirts with suicide by closing his eyes on the highway but he always opens them, which he interprets as “a conditioned response, this choosing life; I do it out of habit” (p. 342). Why does he feel betrayed by his survival instinct in America when he has shown so much bravery and ingenuity in getting himself there? How does this square with his preoccupation with the meaninglessness and absurdity of life (existentialist themes shared by artists who interest him, like Beckett, Dostoyevsky, Tarkovsky)?

22. How do you interpret the novel’s ending? Do you believe that Ismet actually killed himself, or is that left ambiguous? Consider the ending in relation to the scene where Ismet goes to visit Mustafa Nalic’s alleged grave back in Bosnia. How might these two scenes resonate, reinforce, or even undermine one another?

23. When Asya and Ismet encounter the Great Dane, Ismet reconstructs the dog’s life story (pp. 154-156). Has he had a sort of mystical vision, like the ones his mother has, or is this just his wild imagination? Given that the name “Archibald” comes to him and saves them from danger, is an argument being made here for vision/imagination as life-saving?

24. Throughout the book, Ismet experiences a split between his body and mind, wherein he is able to look at himself with detachment, as though he were looking at another person. What triggers these experiences? (p. 17, pp. 190-191, pp. 258-259.) Have you ever experienced something like them?

Suggestions for further reading:

Sarajevo Blues by Semezdin Mehmedinovic; Nowhere Man by Aleksandar Hemon; Sarajevo Marlboro by Miljenko Jergovic; The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric; The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugresic; Scar on the Stone: Contemporary Poetry from Bosnia, edited by Chris Agee; How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Sa]a Stani]ic; Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi; What Is the What by Dave Eggers; Dancing Arabs by Sayed Kashua, Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995 by Joe Sacco; Then They Started Shooting: Growing Up in Wartime Bosnia by Lynne Jones; Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West by David Rieff; Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War by Peter Maass; Café Europa: Life After Communism by Slavenka Drakulic