Girl at War by Sara Novic

When reading a novel, I often like to put myself in the heroine’s shoes to better experience the emotions portrayed, but when the book involves violent conflicts, I prefer to remain a neutral bystander staying partly aloof to avoid personal heartbreak. Since I was alive during the war between the Serbs and Croatians, I had an extra reason to remain detached, a feeling of guilt. After avidly watching the 1984 Winter Olympics held in Sarajevo, the idea that the world was allowing people who could easily be my next door neighbors to participate in a mass genocide greatly disturbed me. The four years of conflict from 1991-1995 was too long a period for the United States to remain effectively quiet, even if they categorized the ethnic conflict in Yugoslavia as a Civil War. Croatian American author Sara Nović brings the trauma right into our homes with her debut novel Girl at War.

Life was simple in the city of Zagreb until civil war broke out between the Serbs and the Croatians. Granted, there had always been hostilities with back and forth fighting, but then warfare came to the village. Ana Juric, at the age of ten, had to learn how to adapt to air raids and rationed meals, to blackouts and her friends’ fathers going off to war, even the observations of an occasional death. Luckily her own father was exempt from the fighting due to a crooked eye, but that didn’t mean that their lives weren’t constantly in danger. When Ana’s baby sister Rachel couldn’t fight off her progressive lung disease, despite the medicine provided by Medipact, a difficult decision was made to send the small child off to America to a foster family who could oversee her treatment. While Rachel was safe from harm, her parents were not so lucky and Ana was forced into survival mode with the help of the community at large.

Ten years later, Ana is now American, formerly adopted by her sister’s foster family. Her Croatian past is kept hidden since people don’t really want to hear about the barbarity of combat, especially after the recent calamity with NYC Twin Towers. Even her boyfriend doesn’t know the truth. Too often Ana feels numb, not allowing herself to feel lest she remember. Yet, these very memories keep calling to her and she realizes she must return to her former home in order to search out her past. Will she be able to locate her childhood friends? Will she be welcome now that so much time has passed? What will remain from before the war and what will be unrecognizable? Temporarily leaving her NYU campus life behind she travels to the village of her childhood looking for some sort of affirmation and possible closure.

Girl at War is written in four parts, with a back and forth between “present” and “past” so the reader can vicariously feel the trauma which Ana experienced as a child soldier in a war torn country. As we wonder what really happened, snippets of details are revealed which explains Ana’s predicament. The author also gives us a glimpse of the horrors of war through a child’s eyes. As Americans, it is difficult for us to imagine the threat of bombings or random shootings at civilians in the streets. In general, we are willing to recognize the atrocities of such conflicts, we simply don’t want to dig too deeply into the gritty details. It’s too painful. Which is why, although well written with a clear, relevant message, I found Girl at War extremely difficult to read. Not that it was overly graphic, the simple explanations were gruesome enough without added embellishments, it just was heart wrenching. While we are aware there is violence in this country, it’s hidden away in the inner city, rarely out in the open. That was why the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001 or the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 were so appalling, we aren’t used to “the enemy” attacking us on our home turf.

However, I do recommend this book – it’s an eye opening story which needs to be told – an event in world history which we Americans have largely ignored. Sara Novic is an excellent storyteller, despite her personal affliction of deafness. Instead of telling Ana’s tale chronologically, the plot vacillates between events and it takes a moment to figure out where in time and space the story continues. So my recommendation to the author is to provide some sort of transition when the settings change. However, perhaps the author was trying to replicate the confusion of a ten year old girl dealing with the effects of war on her world. Born in New Jersey, Sara took her own journey to Bosnia, prior to her graduation from Columbia University, where she gathered the tales of a conflict which had become a personal obsession, eventually transforming them into Ana’s staggering narrative.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for supplying an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on my blog, Gotta Read.

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