Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Girl at War, by Sara Nović

Girl at War is a powerful and brutal debut novel that tells the story of a young girl's coming of age and her struggle to make sense of her shattered identity. Everything- family, home, friendship, belonging- is touched and shaped by the Yugoslav wars, no matter how much peacetime elapses.

Beginning in Zagreb in 1991, narrator Ana Jurić is a cheeky, scampish 10-year-old, living with her parents and sickly baby sister in a small but love-filled apartment in Croatia's capital city. She spends her days furiously cycling with her best friend Luka (whom 10 year old Ana assumes she'll marry), playing football and generally being carefree and inquisitive. But 1991 is the year that civil war breaks out across Yugoslavia, shattering Ana's blissful childhood. Normality is eroded by rationing, hunger, stories of 'fallen' towns and cities, air raids, snipers and sand bag walls. As unease begins to settle in amongst the different ethnicities in the neighbourhoods, suspicion and danger grows daily and Ana and her family need to take dramatic, dangerous risks just to have a chance of survival.

Skipping forward, the story picks up Ana's new life as a University student in 2001 New York. Witnessing 9/11 from Manhattan itself she's convinced that disaster and death will follow her forever. Despite passing for a legitimate American and having spent over half of her life in the States, America has never felt like home to her. Ana can never escape her memories of the war and the traumatic events of her past, no matter how much she tries to move on. She keeps secrets from her tutors, from her boyfriend and even from her sister, the sickly baby rescued by aid workers and raised almost entirely in the US. Struggling with her identity, coming from a country that no longer exists and having lived so long an outsider, Ana makes the decision to return to Croatia after a decade away hoping to feel a sense of home at last. She's craving answers- what happened to Luka? To her parents' friends? To her city? She lands  having never technically set foot in Croatia before, tasked with the impossibility of coming to terms with her nation's turbulent history and the events that splintered her childhood and destroyed her family years before. 

Jumping periodically between 1991 and 2001 and gradually filling in the horrifying gaps in Ana's life, Girl at War is a frank, generous and beautifully lyrical novel that shows how history makes irreparable impressions on an person, but does so in a way that isn't overly sentimental or sensational. The prose is gorgeous and it flows seamlessly; it's violently upfront in places, but glows with warmth and nostalgia in others. All through the novel the author really captures the confusion and the brutality of such a recent war, the fact that it was all televised too. It seems insane that such horrific war crimes could have been committed so recently, yet still be consigned to history. It's the year Beauty and the Beast came out for crying out loud.

I found the voice of Ana to be so compelling and I was just staggered by her continuous strength. As a child, she's a roguish, rough-and-tumble, barefooted Scout Finch type that really demonstrates the invincibility delusion of young children, as well as their adaptability. To Ana the war is barely a reality- yes it's altered her life somewhat, some people she knew have gone away to fight, but she normalises things quickly and just gets on with her life. Even when the most horrific things happen to her, she runs and she survives, doing what she needs to do. The brutality and the horror that she experiences is shocking, and the character's strength and bravery is unbelievable. Not because she's a hero or a savour of any type, she's not really exemplary in any way, but she's able to carry on which is remarkable. Nović does an incredible job of showing what effect war has on the anonymous civilian, the normal, everyday people that survive and have to live with their memories forever.

This is a brilliant, brilliant book- it's hard to believe that such accomplished writing can be from a debut novel. Whilst the story can't be described as enjoyable as such, it's absorbing and urgent and brilliantly told, and it's impossible to put down. It left me feeling quite guilty of knowing so little about a war that happened in my lifetime, and staggered by what survivors must have gone through.

Enormous thanks to Susan de Soissons @Savoy67 at Little, Brown Book Group for the review copy. 
Girl at War is out on the 21st on May 2015

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