Fiction – Kindle edition; Little, Brown; 336 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.
Sara Nović’s debut novel, Girl at War, has the dubious honour of making me cry not once but twice.
This deeply affecting story is about a 10-year-old Croatian girl, Ana Juric, who is caught up in the Yugoslavian civil war of the early 1990s.
After her parents are brutally slaughtered, she endures a short stint as a “child soldier”, before her godfather arranges to get her out of the country. Smuggled into the United States, she is adopted by an Italian-American family, where her life looks set to be a happy one, but ten years on, haunted by what she experienced, she returns to her homeland to make peace with what happened.
Idyllic childhood disrupted by war
The book follows a non-linear timeline, so when we first meet Ana she is living in Zagreb with her working-class parents and baby sister. She is a happy-go-lucky tomboy, hanging out with her best friend Luka, when the war breaks out and Yugoslavia divides itself along religious and ethnic lines.
In school, we’d been taught to ignore distinguishing ethnic factors, though it was easy enough to discern someone’s ancestry by their last name. Instead we were trained to regurgitate pan-Slavic slogans: “Bratstvo i Jedinstvo!” Brotherhood and Unity. But now it seemed the differences between us might be important after all. Luka’s family was originally from Bosnia, a mixed state, a confusing third category. Serbs wrote in Cyrillic and Croats in the Latin alphabet, but in Bosnia they used both, the spoken differences even more minute. I wondered if there was a special brand of Bosnian cigarettes, too, and whether Luka’s father smoked those.
As the bombs and gunfights and air raids begin to dominate everyday life, we experience the claustrophobia, confusion and fear from a child’s perspective. Ana can see the destruction all around her and then come home and see it being broadcast on TV.
As a side effect of modern warfare, we had the peculiar privilege of watching the destruction of our country on television.
The book then jumps forward by 10 years. Ana is now living in New York, where she’s undertaking a degree in English literature, but we have no idea how she got there or what has happened to her in the intervening decade. Some of the gaps are filled in by a speech she is invited to make at the UN.
“There’s no such thing as a child soldier in Croatia,” I declared as the next slide flashed—two teenage girls sporting camouflage and scuff-marked assault rifles. “There is only a child with a gun.”
We were not like the children of Sierra Leone who, a continent away, were fighting their own battles that same year; we weren’t kidnapped and spoon-fed narcotics until we were numbed enough to kill, though now that it was over I sometimes wished for the excuse. We took no orders, sniped at the JNA from blown-out windows of our own accord, then in the next moment played cards and had footraces. And though I had learned to expel weapons from my everyday thoughts, speaking of them now I felt something I wasn’t expecting—longing. As jarring as the guns were to the pale crowd before me, for many of us they were synonymous with youth, coated in the same lacquer of nostalgia that glosses anyone’s childhood.
As an adult, Ana is deeply traumatised, perhaps suffering some form of PTSD, because she never sleeps and when she does, she experiences distressing night terrors. She passes as an American, not a Croat, so never tells anyone about her past. It is buried deep within. Not even her boyfriend knows her ethnic background.
In America, I’d learned quickly what it was okay to talk about and what I should keep to myself. “It’s terrible what happened there,” people would say when I let slip my home country and explained that it was the one next to Bosnia. They’d heard about Bosnia; the Olympics had been there in ’84.
But keeping up this pretence is exhausting. And the advent of 9/11 and the American’s “War on Terror” brings up all kinds of memories and conflicting emotions.
The country was at war, but for most people the war was more an idea than an experience, and I felt something between anger and shame that Americans—that I—could sometimes ignore its impact for days at a time. In Croatia, life in wartime had meant a loss of control, war holding sway over every thought and movement, even while you slept. It did not allow for forgetting. But America’s war did not constrain me; it did not cut my water or shrink my food supply. There was no threat of takeover with tanks or foot soldiers or cluster bombs, not here.
Ana begins to realise that she needs to confront her traumatic past in order to get on with her life. She wants to know what happened to her friend Luka and his parents, for instance, and so, using her savings, and in defiance of her adopted family’s wishes, she goes back to her homeland to find answers to those questions.
Her trip is detailed in the final section of the book. It’s a painful return, but it allows Ana to rediscover the good things (as well as the bad) that have shaped her identity and it gives us, the reader, the opportunity to find out how she was smuggled out of the country in a daring operation that so many of her compatriots would never have been able to achieve.
Girl at War is a powerful story about grief, exile and war — and the trauma that endures long after hostilities have ceased.