Fiction Review: Girl at War, by Sara Novic
Title: Girl at War
Author: Sara Nović
Publisher: Random House, 2015. 316 pages
Zagreb, summer of 1991. Ten-year-old Ana Jurić is a carefree tomboy who runs the streets of Croatia's capital with her best friend, Luka, takes care of her baby sister, Rahela, and idolizes her father. But as civil war breaks out across Yugoslavia, soccer games and school lessons are supplanted by sniper fire and air raid drills. When tragedy suddenly strikes, Ana is lost to a world of guerilla warfare and child soldiers; a daring escape plan to America becomes her only chance for survival.
Ten years later Ana is a college student in New York. She's been hiding her past from her boyfriend, her friends, and most especially herself. Haunted by the events that forever changed her family, she returns alone to Croatia, where she must rediscover the place that was once her home and search for the ghosts of those she's lost.
This is an ambitious book, and for the most part, I think it does its job well. The author is writing historical fiction, but from a near-history that is still a part of the lives of most living people. She is also taking something that happened "over there" and bringing it home to the reader as you realize that the people in this war story aren't in any significant way different from us (they weren't "long ago" or in a 3rd-world country where we can convince ourselves that "things are different there"). That, combined with the fact that the main character is only a child during the war, brings it home to the reader in a powerful way.
The structure is challenging for the author: roughly half the book is set during the war, when Ana is 10. The rest is a decade later, and Ana has a completely different life. The author resists the temptation to swap back and forth constantly. Instead, the first 1/3rd to 1/2 of the book is set in the earlier period, with a few flashbacks in the second half as Ana slowly fills in the parts that are missing between her tragedy and her relocation to America. That works well, I think, and allows the reader to really engage with the young Ana (making the shock of the war all the greater), while also keeping us engaged as she slowly fills in the final links that help us understand Ana's trauma and inability to settle into her American life. The cognitive dissonance of her own life is reflected well in the contrast between New York and her return to Zagreb.
I didn't think this was a perfect book, but it was a very good one, and I think well worth reading for a clearer understanding of a war that was pretty distant to most of us.
FTC Disclosure: I checked Girl at War out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review. The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."