When I visit another country I like to read something, if possible, set in the place I’m going to. I read Girl at War on my recent trip to Dubrovnik and while the Croatia portrayed in the novel was (thankfully) very different from the one I was visiting, it was good to learn a little bit about its history and what it was like to live there during one of the most turbulent periods in the country’s past.
The story begins in 1991, just as Croatia declares independence from Yugoslavia and becomes a country at war. Our narrator is ten-year-old Ana Jurić, who lives in Zagreb with her parents and baby sister; just a normal child whose life revolves around going to school and playing football with her best friend, Luka. With the outbreak of civil war comes big changes and suddenly Ana finds herself running for shelter during air raids, coping with food and water shortages, and wondering how her little sister will get the medical treatment she so desperately needs. But things are about to get even worse, and when a tragedy tears Ana’s world apart, she is forced to experience unimaginable atrocities that no child should ever have to face.
Ten years later, the war is over and Ana is living in New York where she is studying literature at university. She has chosen not to reveal the truth about her childhood to anyone – not even to her boyfriend – but her painful memories are still very close to the surface. Ana finally makes the decision that before she can move on with her life she will have to return to Croatia…but what will she find when she gets there and how will she come to terms with the horrors of her past?
It’s hard to believe that Girl at War is Sara Nović’s first novel; I found it a very compelling, moving and emotional story. I particularly enjoyed the early chapters, describing Ana’s life at the onset of war – child narrators don’t always work for me, but in this case seeing war through the eyes of a ten-year-old girl was very effective and the perfect way to tell the story. The end of the first section was unforgettable and one of the most harrowing moments I’ve read in fiction for some time. Jumping forward ten years to Ana’s life as a student in America was slightly disappointing as I really wanted to stay in Croatia and follow Ana’s wartime experiences, but I understood why the author chose to do that and I was pleased that the gaps were filled in later.
Before starting this novel, I knew very little about the war in Yugoslavia; I was still at school when it began and although I can remember seeing it on the news, I think I was just too young to have really understood what it was all about. Reading Girl at War hasn’t added very much to my knowledge of the reasons for the war or the politics behind it, but what it did do very successfully was show me what it’s like to be an innocent child caught up in conflict and how the emotional effects of those experiences never completely go away.
As I approached the final chapters of this novel, I was prepared to say that this was one of the best books I’d read so far this year. Sadly, though, I thought it was let down by a poor ending which felt abrupt and unresolved, and I finished the book feeling sorry that Ana’s story hadn’t been given a more satisfying conclusion. Despite this, I would still recommend reading Girl at War for its emotional impact and fascinating insights into a traumatic period of history. I’ll be looking out for future novels by Sara Nović.