Book review: Girl at War, written by Sara Novic

Available at bookstores nationwide.

Girl at War is the debut fiction novel of Sara Novic, a talented writer and editor. The book cv_girl_at_waropens 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
ISBN 9781408706558

Book review: The Golden Door: Letters to America by A.A. Gill

This book is in bookstores now.

“‘Stupid, stupid. Americans are stupid. America is stupid. A stupid, stupid country made stupid by stupid, stupid people.’” This comment was overheard by author A.A. Gill at a dinner party, and The Golden Door: Letters to America is clearly Gill’s indignant retort to the contrary.

In this sequence of loosely interlinked essays, Gill addresses and scrutinises those all too familiar clichés surrounding America—not merely those concerning its apparent idiocy, but also its conservatism, its language, its technological innovations and, of course, its greatest myth, the American dream.

Each essay gravitates around a single theme, heralded by a punchy chapter title (‘Speeches’, ‘Evolution’, ‘Movies’), such that reading The Golden Door is like sampling every dish at an Americana buffet. But the essays are also held together by the common narrative of the immigrant story, particularly as it pertains to Gill’s family, who, five generations before, split into two branches—the branch that struck out for the New World, and the England-bound branch that stayed behind.

Gill’s interweaving of this family history and his own personal experiences with the stories of historical figures like Thomas Edison and the larger American historical picture ensure that The Golden Door remains largely particular, specific and relevant.

This is not to say that Gill doesn’t like the odd sweeping generalisation. Gill is a man with opinions, and ideas, and he is not afraid to show them. Some of his arguments are put across convincingly (for example, that America owes much of its national character not to the British or the French, but to the Germans). Sometimes, however, his admittedly formidable gift for erudite writing drowns out and confuses his argument. It also doesn’t help that, though born in Edinburgh and resident in London, Gill is obviously a card-carrying, Declaration-of-Independence-thumping convert to the Church of America, and (to me) he sometimes lets his fervour engorge his already rather baroque prose.

But when Gill is at his best, as he is in the essay ‘Guns’, his distinctive writing is married to a compelling argument and describes a fascinating pocket of American history. My favourite essay, however, was the irreverent chapter on American sex, every page of which was hilarious, linguistically inventive, and contained another new favourite quote (none of which, of course, are printable in a public forum. More’s the pity.)

The Golden Door is not only well written, well put together and generally well considered. It is also a peek behind the door of American history, a door which seems all too often closed in New Zealand, since we don’t learn much of it in school or university and our prevailing wisdoms concerning America are received through the TV or movie screen. But this collection of essays proves to be an intriguing taster of American culture in all its multifaceted, contradictory glory.

Am I now, like Gill, a convert to the Church of the New World? Not quite. But goshdarnit, I’d sure like to go to a service.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

The Golden Door: Letters to America
by A.A. Gill
Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
ISBN 9780297868521