This book is harrowing. The most brutal moments are told in the most stark, unsensational ways, so you have are left shocked, trying to catch your breath and get to grips with what you have just read. It is an easy read, in that the characters are well developed and the writing flows, but its subject matter makes it incredible difficult – as might be suggested by the name of the book. Girl at War by Sara Novic is set around the Serbo-Croatian war in the 1990s – a war I have to admit I know next to nothing about. Just a child in the 90s, I was not yet interested in politics, or history, or war. That was a luxury, for the protagonist of this book was also just a child in the 90s, more interested in riding a bike with her best friend, but given no choice but to be involved in war, to be a part of history. The war starts slowly, with a question about cigarettes that the protagonist, ten year old Ana, doesn’t fully understand the meaning of, but feels the menace behind: “Serbian or Croatian?“. It creeps into the lives of Ana’s family and friends through refugees and whispered rumours, bombing and games played in air-raid shelters. Then all of a sudden the war becomes very real indeed. With the abrupt end of Ana’s childhood (I am saying no more as to not spoil the book for those who might read it), the novel jumps in place and time. The second part picks up ten years later, in the U.S. where Ana is now a 20 year old at university, with a “normal” life but struggling to continue to conceal the things she went through in the war. Passages about her current life are interrupted with violent memories from a decade ago, and bit by bit we, the reader, are able to piece together what happened to her and to those she loved back in Croatia as Ana attempts to overcome the trauma that has scarred her. In the final section of the book, Ana returns to Croatia, and the author cleverly intermingles her new cultural dislocation from the country of her birth (for example, a lack of air conditioning), with the traumatic flashbacks and memories of the war. It’s a personal story about Ana, rather than a more detailed look into what caused the war or atrocities committed during it, but for that reason it is intensely readable and un-put-down-able (yes that’s a word).
“Girl at War is a superb exploration of conflict and its aftermath, and a stark reminder that while ceasefires and peace treaties may end the fighting, they don’t always end the suffering.” “Girl at War is an extraordinarily poised and potent debut novel, a story about grief and exile, memory and identity, and the redemptive power of love.”