My Review of "Girl at War" by Sara Novic

Girl at War
I saw this title in the longlist for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction which was announced on the 8th March. I was also, a little superficially, enticed by the haunting cover.  I was delighted when I was approved by NetGalley to receive an advanced copy to review.

Novic's debut novel is about Ana and her attempts to reconcile herself with her experience of the Yugoslavian Civil War in the early 1990s. It begins with a 10 year old Ana whose first experience of the war is from the shopkeeper asking "Do you want Serbian cigarettes or Croatian ones?" when she is sent on a errand for her uncle. Divided into four parts, the novel moves to New York where we find Ana as a 20 year old college student, then back to the war in Yugoslavia and finally, the journey of Ana returning to her home country in search of the people she had to leave behind.

The first part is narrated in a simplistic style which effectively captures a ten year old's view of their immediate world. "Now we were landlocked," she says, "the weekend dinners had become an anxious charade of normality." She is aware of how life is changing as a consequence of war but still childlike enough to reflect a confusion and lack of understanding about exactly what is happening around her; "What colour are we again?" she asks when looking at the map. Life goes on for tomboy Ana and her best friend Luka, increasingly more peppered with air raids, blackouts, ID checks, blockades and food shortages, but they seem untouched by the implied brutality creeping into the country around them. In fact, war is providing opportunities for adventure and new games; "blockades begged to be climbed....might have been a jungle gym" and maybe it's even more unreal for them while they have the "peculiar privilege of watching destruction of our own country on tv."

Rahela, Ana's baby sister then becomes desperately ill. She has kidney failure and cannot be treated effectively in Zagreb so her parents plan to travel to Sarajevo. Ana's description of her parent's preparation and subsequent discussions demonstrates that life is more complicated and problematic than Ana is fully aware and imparts the level of poverty, hardship and dilemmas with which they are presented. Novic's decision to relate this section of the family's story from Ana's position as a young child is effective. It keeps it frank rather than overly emotional and hysterical - which considering the events it is recalling could have been sorely tempting, but would probably have upset the controlled understated style that permeates throughout the whole novel. This final section of Part One and the events it recounts is powerful. The child like voice and her "realisation that my parents too felt fear and pain frightened me more than any stranger could," creates more tension. It is an incredible way to end the opening section.

It is necessary to start the second part ten years later in a new location. It allows the reader to recover from the tragedy and trauma of the war and stops the book from becoming too bleak and sentimental. However, Novic is quick to remind us that even after the end of war, the suffering continues. Ana says that when she is asked about the war she speaks "truthfully" but is often met with "uncomfortable shifting of eyes as if waiting for me to take things back, to say that war or genocide was no big deal....", they find "an excuse to end the conversation." She is frustrated by people questioning why people stay in a country under such terrible conditions and how they couldn't understand how a place of such danger could also still be one that harbours feelings of love. So she stops talking about it. She passes herself as an American - it's easier. And so marks the start of Ana's continuing anguish of trying to come to terms with who she really is and where she actually belongs. She feels caught between two worlds, two cultures, two lives - belonging to neither. She feels guilt about the fact that she is now in a new family as if she has "traded one for another like a car." In trying to move on, it means forgetting, denying a past, processing deeply buried memories and shows how incredibly hard it is to adapt and cope in a new country.

After the 9/11 attacks she is angered that American's consider themselves at war but they can ignore its impact for days and it's more of an idea than an experience. In America, war did not "constrain me, did not cut my water or shrink my food supply...the misuse of the word is so incongruous with what happened in Croatia." Ana is equally disturbed by people's use of the word "starving", especially at college where "every night was a buffet ....then thrown away." These are thought provoking observations.

Ana decides to return home to Croatia after reading an inscription in a book about the Civil War which resonants deeply with her: "no one knows who I am, not even me."

On her return it is her candid statements that continue to convey so much more. Reunited with Luka she learns of the death of his grandfather from old age. "We were expecting it," Luka informs her. "I'd never come across death when I was expecting it," considers Ana. Novic's blunt, uncluttered words impart so much more. Once back with Luka's family, Ana is reminded how much superstition is part of the culture here and I liked her observation that she couldn't think of a single American superstition. She wonders whether the immigrants had deliberately forgotten about the less desirable pieces of their culture as they reform a hybrid version or whether it was just that life wasn't difficult enough to warrant an adult's belief in magic. Indeed.

The next section takes us back to Ana's experiences during the war. Again, brutal and full of gravity, retaining the more factual and informative tone of voice rather than anything gratuitous.

I really liked the ending. There was something thematically circular about ending the book with Luka asking simple questions about the migration of birds. It reminded us of the young Luka, the Luka before the war, whose constant curiosity had dominated their games and conversation. It evokes a time before his questions became threatening or indicated the reality of their dangerous situation; it takes us back to a time of innocence and safety. It offers hope.

The last word of the book is "home". This encapsulates Ana's mental and physical journey of self discovery and the key theme of a compelling and serious novel.

This is a quick, memorable read and an impressive debut. I liked its understated, authentic narrative which I was hard pushed to believe was historical fiction and not a memoir. This would make a perfect Book Club choice, would suit a YA audience too and I'm sure it will be nominated for a plethora of awards and prizes.

Thank you to NetGalley for the advanced copy in return for a fair and honest review.

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