Girl at War by Sara Nović

Girl at War 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.

Dubrovnik

I probably haven’t been away long enough for anyone to have noticed my absence, but I’ve just returned from four days in Dubrovnik. It was the first time I’ve been to Croatia and I thought it was a beautiful country with some spectacular scenery. We were lucky enough to have good weather while we were there too.

I’ll have some books to tell you about soon, but while I finish writing my reviews I thought I’d leave you with some of my pictures…

Rooftops of the Old Town

Dubrovnik Rooftops

Old Town Harbour

City Harbour

Stradun (the main street), viewed from the city walls

Stradun

St John Fortress

St John Fortress

St Lawrence Fortress

St Lawrence Fortress

Lopud Island (one of the Elafiti Islands to the north-west of Dubrovnik)

Lopud Island

The beautiful Adriatic Sea

Adriatic Sea

I’ll be back to talk about books in a day or two – including one set in Croatia which I started reading on the plane!

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is part of the Myths series by Canongate Books, in which authors retell traditional myths from around the world in a new and original way. This book by Croatian author Dubravka Ugresic takes a fresh and unusual approach to the Slavic myth of Baba Yaga.

Baba Yaga (shown here in a painting by Viktor Vasnetsov – picture from Wikipedia in public domain) is usually portrayed as a hag or witch who lives in a log cabin mounted on a pair of chicken legs. She uses a giant mortar and pestle to fly through the air, kidnapping and threatening to eat small children. Although she has a terrifying appearance, Baba Yaga is also said to possess great wisdom and will sometimes give help and advice to anyone brave enough to ask.

Rather than simply reiterating this myth, Ugresic relates the myth to the lives of modern women and explores a large number of topics including ageing, feminism, love and loneliness. The book does not follow the format of a conventional novel and is divided into three separate and seemingly unconnected stories.

In the first story, the narrator travels to Varna in Bulgaria, the childhood home of her mother who is now old and ill. In the second story, we meet Beba, Pupa and Kukla, three old women who are staying together at a spa in the Czech Republic. But what is the connection between these two stories and what do they have to do with Baba Yaga? I have to admit, by this point I was starting to feel slightly confused. Yes, I had learned a lot about growing old, but how did all of these things relate to the myth of Baba Yaga? Luckily, I found the answers to my questions in the third and final section of the book.

Part 3 is presented as if a folklore expert was responding to a request for information about Baba Yaga and had been asked to explain the meaning of the first two sections. This part of the book was fascinating but began to feel like a very, very long encyclopedia entry. I previously knew almost nothing about Baba Yaga though, so it was good to learn something about the myth. I was also pleased at how well this final section pulled all the threads of the book together and helped me understand the significance of everything I had just been reading.

This book should appeal to anyone who has ever worried about growing old or anyone with an interest in mythology as it relates to feminism. I can’t honestly say that I loved this book or even that I particularly enjoyed it, but it was a very interesting concept and I’m glad I decided to give it a try.

Has anyone read any of the other Canongate Myths books. Are they similar to this one?