Published by Random House
Publication date: May 12th 2015
Ana is from Croatia but now lives in America and attends college in New York. Despite having been in the U.S for a decade she suddenly finds herself overcome by memories of her life in Croatia in 1991—the beginning of the Yugoslavian civil war. These memories increase in intensity until she can no longer sleep at night. In desperation, she decides to go back to Croatia to try and put to rest her ten-year-old self and what she witnessed. This is Girl at War, the debut novel of Sara Nović.
Girl at War moves in four parts between past and present, and in each Ana is struggling to either reconcile the war herself or try and explain it to the people around her. When she first arrives in America there is an unwillingness of the adults around her to acknowledge the war and so she quickly learns to downplay her experiences. At the same time she is haunted by them and by the people she left behind. This creates a line of emotional demarcation within Ana but it is not clearly defined in that despite an opening of extreme intensity the feeling is lost as the novel progresses. It may be that this splitting of the narrative between past and present—Ana’s young life in Croatia and the rest of her life in the safety of America—works against the novel and keeps the full impact of wartime Croatia from reaching the reader.
Where Nović excels in Girl at War is in conveying the profound confusion of this war. There is the obvious ignorance of most Americans (of which I am guilty, having no knowledge of the war beyond as a footnote to the Clinton presidency) but the novel is imbued throughout with the ambiguity and resulting fear felt by all of the characters in the region. Even before the war, when Ana’s family travels to Slovenia, she finds the trip difficult because
The difference between Croatian and Slovenian was exasperatingly mild, the storefronts and street signs filled with words that looked familiar but not quite right, rendering comprehension just out of reach.
Imagine then how muddied the waters become, when religious differences are layered in and all is filtered through a young girl’s mind and a young woman’s memory. What was clear and what hit home were Ana’s thoughts about a childhood friend when she sees him again as an adult.
“I had wanted him to be outraged, too, but I knew in the end the guilt of one side did not prove the innocence of the other.”