Girl at War
By Sara Novic
Random House: May 12, 2015
316 pages, $26.00
In her impressive debut novel, Sara Novic has gifted readers with a riveting coming of age story set against the Yugoslavian civil war of the early 90s. Girl at War explores the impact of an incomprehensible war on 10-year-old Ana Juric and her family and friends in Zagreb, Croatia.
The opening 91-page section, “They Both Fell,” joins the ranks of classic war fiction with its unblinking child’s-eye-view of war. Ana lives a relatively normal life in her family’s apartment in Zagreb, distinguished only by her appealing tomboy nature and close friendship with a boy named Luka.
But when the Serbs begin bombing parts of Croatia, and a Serbian militia group made up of drunken louts with automatic weapons establishes roadblocks as an excuse to slaughter innocent Croats, life for the Juric family quickly implodes. While we have read stories like this before, Novic is a gifted enough writer to make the “same old story” newly compelling and heartbreaking.
Novic then jumps ahead ten years to catch up with college student Ana in New York City. In Part II, “Somnambulist,” we learn that she was adopted by a Philadelphia area couple and now exists in a schizophrenic world: her present, in which she is an Americanized young woman, and her past, which refuses to release her into the future. She is an insomniac, haunted by the violence she witnessed close to home and her brief role as a child soldier in the resistance. Eventually, she decides the past’s ownership of her psychological and emotional life must be addressed, so during her summer break she impulsively returns to Croatia to face down her ghosts.
In Part III, “Safe House,” we are taken back to Ana’s wartime experiences, which are even more horrifying than we believed when we were abruptly, but powerfully, yanked from them at the end of Part I. Suffice to say, it soon becomes clear why the 20-year-old American Ana is a tortured soul with unfinished business to attend to.
Part IV, “Echoed by the Trees,” picks up where Part II left off, as Ana searches for answers to several questions, reconnects with an adult Luka, and faces her worst fears.
Girl at War succeeds in being both particular and universal. Novic brings to vivid life this one story of the Balkan civil war while exploring the profound, lifelong effects war has on an individual, regardless of time or place. Ana is a memorable character worth getting to know. And Girl at War will leave an indelible impression on readers’ minds.