Reviewed by Danielle Pullen
Growing up in Zagreb in the summer of 1991, 10-year-old Ana Juric is a carefree tomboy; she runs the streets with her best friend, Luka, helps take care of her baby sister, Rahela, and idolizes her father. But when civil war breaks out across Yugoslavia, football games and school lessons are supplanted by sniper fire and air raid drills.
The brutal ethnic cleansing of Croats and Bosnians tragically changes Ana's life, and she is lost to a world of genocide and child soldiers; a daring escape plan to America becomes her only chance for survival. Ten years later she returns to Croatia, a young woman struggling to belong to either country, forced to confront the trauma of her past and rediscover the place that was once her home.
Girl At War is a haunting, compelling debut from a brilliant young writer, rooted in historical fact and personal experience. Sara has lived in the States and Croatia, and her novel bears witness to the haunting stories of her family and friends who lived through the height of the conflict, and reflects her own attempts to come to terms with her relationship to Croatia and its history. It is an extraordinary achievement for a novelist of any age, let alone age 26.
This novel is framed by two extraordinary emotionally-charged moments, both of which occur in Zagreb 10 years apart.
At the beginning of the novel, Ana Juric is a typical girl enjoying an everyday childhood. She lives with her mother and father and younger sister, Rahela. She enjoys all of the usual bike rides and games with her friend Luka that all youngsters do. The one negative in Ana’s life is the persistently poor health of her younger sister, and it is her deteriorating condition that proves to be the catalyst for the family’s future.
Hand in hand with Rahela’s ever more worrying illness, is the breakdown in Croatian society and the civil war which makes life in Zagreb perilous. Determined to put the health of their baby first, Ana’s parents decide that Rahela must be taken overseas where she can be looked after and receive the medical intervention she needs. Unfortunately, however, reaching the rendezvous point to hand over their sick baby entails a very dangerous journey via Serb-controlled areas for the family. The Juric family successfully reach the rendezvous point for Rahela but it is on the journey back to Zagreb where the first pivotal moment in the narrative occurs.
Girl at War is Sara Novic’s first novel and it is based on her own experiences. Her ability to withhold the emotion she must feel and maintain an engaging yet straightforward writing style is a real achievement. The narrative is plot-driven and easy to read yet it is exactly this comfortable writing style that shocks the reader when highly-charged moments occur.
Without wanting to create any spoilers, I have to say that the first pivotal moment in the story is one that will live in my mind for years to come and it is so powerful that it colours the novel as a whole. So unprepared was I that I needed to read this section several times to check that I hadn’t misread the events and it did cause me to pause and walk away from the text.
The remainder of the story focuses on Ana’s life in America ten years later. This part of the story was interesting in that it demonstrated how Ana is coming to terms with her past experiences and the events in her homeland. Novic successfully demonstrates through Ana that we can never really leave our past behind and those early experiences live with us and influence our lives into adulthood.
Ana struggles to settle emotionally within her new family and I couldn’t help but feel she was a little unappreciative of the family who had spent so much time and energy on her in the intervening years. However, towards the end of the novel, Ana feels compelled to return to Croatia to search for familiar faces and places. It is whilst searching through a familiar scene that the second poignant moment in the novel occurs.
Although much of the text centres on events, the author relies on description to give a sense of Ana’s emotions at this stage and this evokes a real sense of empathy for her situation. It would have been easy at this stage to give a ‘tidy’ ending to this novel but, suffice to say, Novic does not take the easy decision in the closing stages.
On too many occasions nowadays it is easy to assume that major events occur on the news to other people. Novic contradicts this view by demonstrating how an absolutely everyday and innocent family can be caught up in a tragedy.
Although this book deals with heavy going issues such as war, ethnic cleansing, adoption and loss it is absolutely a story that needs to be told. Wonderful first novel told in an engaging and accessible style.
I'd like to thank Poppy at Little Brown for sending Danielle a copy of this book to review.