Girl at War is the debut fiction novel of Sara Novic, a talented writer and editor. The book opens with Ana, a ten year old at the start of the Bosnian-Croat conflict. Her life is carefree, with initially few intrusions from the commencing conflict around her. Ana enjoys holidays and roaming freely in the streets with her best friend, Luka. Inevitably, her world becomes one of bombs, ethnic conflict, warfare and genocide. The story moves ahead ten years and it is apparent that Ana, now a university student living in New York, needs to deal with her childhood in Croatia.
This is such a good debut novel. It is an incredibly satisfying read. I particularly enjoyed the well-developed characters. A lot of work has gone in to the cast of supporting characters, and how they are viewed through the eyes of a young child, and then later as a young adult. This is not a novel where all the loose ends are neatly tied up – it would not be a fair or honest treatment of the characters.
The author cleverly highlights how easy it is is for countries at peace to ignore or minimise the reality of war. Her American family refer to the war as ‘unrest’ or ‘troubles.’ When the exploding fireworks of Fourth of July celebrations cause Ana to take shelter for safety, you can feel her disbelief that any country that has experienced war could even celebrate with explosions. It makes perfect sense that Ana chooses to hide her heritage from her friends. She notes that American family and friends have not ‘smelled the air raid smoke or the scent of singed flesh on their own balconies’ – they have not experienced war in their neighbourhood and as such, it is too much for them to take in.
The book occasionally reads like an autobiography. There is a lot of detail given of the main settings and the author’s experience of living in both countries shows. I was struck by the dichotomy of family life and setting in both Croatia and America. In America her family seems remote, but the environment is safe, almost boring. In Croatia she is welcomed back with great warmth. It is clear though that post-war Croatia is still unsafe – a near assault while using public transport and previously benign buildings like the grocery store now carry the weight of wartime experiences. It is very cleverly done.
I’m left with a number of startling images and thoughts from the book. How can a country go ‘back to normal’ after a war (and particularly a civil war)? How can a young adult of two cultures ever feel truly at home? How does a country work to develop accord and understanding amongst the population when the war within the population has been so violent and directed at the citizenry? This is such a thoughtful novel and it left a genuine impact on me. I strongly recommend it.
Review by Emma Wong-Ming
Girl at War
by Sara Novic
Published by Little, Brown