I was recently perusing audiobooks when I came across Girl at War by Sara Nović. Its setting in an event I knew little about—the Croatian War of Independence—captured my interest, and I immediately bought the book. It was only then that I noticed I already have another book by the author, True Biz, which just came out last spring. I’ll get to that one very soon, because Girl at War has proven to be absolutely stunning.
Ana Jurić turns 10 in August 1991, but although her life in Zagreb has been mostly carefree and joyous until now, she’s about to see the firsthand effects of war. She’s close to her parents and sickly baby sister, as well as her best friend Luka, and those connections keep their spirits up for a time. But food rations, electricity issues, and loved ones lost to war begin to take their toll. Adding the their plight, Ana’s family is poor and her baby sister is ill, perhaps life-threateningly so. Her family have to travel to get her the medical care she needs. Ultimately, this leads to the most life-altering moment in Ana’s young life.
In 2002, Ana is a student at New York University. She’s bottled up her trauma, but she can’t ignore it anymore after giving a speech about her experience in the Croatian War of Independence. Ana can’t talk about it with her family or her boyfriend, no matter how understanding they try to be. In an effort to face her past, Ana returns to Zagreb. She hopes to find the people she hasn’t seen in past decade, and maybe to come to terms with the trauma she hasn’t yet processed.
Girl at War is engrossing from the first chapter. Ana is a tomboy who’s about to turn 10, and she’s surrounded by people who love her: her parents, her godparents, her best friend. Not everything is perfect; her family is poor and her baby sister has been sick lately. Even so, Ana is able to play with Luka by day and hear bedtime stories by night. Sara Nović paints an idyllic picture of childhood and how carefree it can be, making the reader remember what it was like to be 10 years old.
But through Ana’s young eyes, we start to see how the new war affects her people and her home. There are rations that leave her family hungry, blackouts that leave them in the dark for days. Worse is how people she knows lose loved ones to the front lines. Soon, her childhood games turn shockingly dark: Instead of playing tag, they’re playing war, and whoever makes the best gun sounds or plays dead the best wins. It’s amazing, or twisted, how kids can transform something so gruesome into something fun. At least it chases away the fear and suffering for a time.
As the months pass, Ana’s baby sister becomes dangerously ill, and her family must travel to get her the life-saving treatment she needs. This leads to one of the most powerful and devastating scenes I’ve encountered in any book. Seeing war through a child’s eyes is impactful and heart-wrenching, somehow simple or naive until the unimaginable changes everything.
Suddenly the book jumps forward 10 years. Ana is now living in America, attending New York University, and has a boyfriend in the city. Her family is back home in Philadelphia. Ana has buried her trauma and even lied about her past, telling most people that’s she grew up in America just like them. She’s unable to really process what she went through, and she isn’t the carefree girl she once was. But after giving a speech about her experience in war, it all comes flooding back.
It’s tragic to see how Ana has so much trauma and can’t work through it. Her tactic has been to bury it and push it away, and she can neither move on nor let anyone in. She’s secretive and isolated, feeling grief and survivor’s guilt but unable to process it.
Eventually, she decides to return to Zagreb and revisit her past. The country is no longer Yugoslavia; it’s now Croatia, and has been peaceful for several years. Yet Ana is finally able to reconnect with people she once loved, talk about her trauma openly, and hopefully come to terms with it.
I cried a few times throughout Girl at War, and I empathized with some of Ana’s heartbreaking perspectives of her life in America. However, I also felt hopeful by the end, sensing that Ana would finally be able to move forward. The book ends very suddenly, and I do wish it offered more closure. But perhaps that’s meant to symbolize how trauma doesn’t necessarily have an end or ever come full circle.
Girl at War is an eye-opening, heartbreaking, and powerful novel. I felt for Ana as a character, and am grateful to have learned about the Croatian War of Independence. (My high school education was, as usual, lacking in terms of world history.) Sara Nović is a frank yet skilled writer, and I look forward to reading her recent novel, True Biz.
Get the Book
You can buy Girl at War here – it’s available as a hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook.
|Girl at War by Sara Nović|
|Audiobook Narrator||Julia Whelan|
|Audience||Adult; Young Adult|
|Genre||Literary Fiction; War Fiction|
|Setting||Yugoslavia (Croatia); United States|
|Number of Pages||320|
|Format I Read||Audiobook|
|Original Publication Date||May 12, 2015|
Zagreb, 1991. Ana Jurić is a carefree ten-year-old, living with her family in a small apartment in Croatia’s capital. But that year, civil war breaks out across Yugoslavia, splintering Ana’s idyllic childhood. Daily life is altered by food rations and air raid drills, and soccer matches are replaced by sniper fire. Neighbors grow suspicious of one another, and Ana’s sense of safety starts to fray. When the war arrives at her doorstep, Ana must find her way in a dangerous world.
New York, 2001. Ana is now a college student in Manhattan. Though she’s tried to move on from her past, she can’t escape her memories of war—secrets she keeps even from those closest to her. Haunted by the events that forever changed her family, Ana returns to Croatia after a decade away, hoping to make peace with the place she once called home. As she faces her ghosts, she must come to terms with her country’s difficult history and the events that interrupted her childhood years before.
Moving back and forth through time, Girl at War is an honest, generous, brilliantly written novel that illuminates how history shapes the individual. Sara Nović fearlessly shows the impact of war on one young girl—and its legacy on all of us. It’s a precocious debut by a writer who has stared into recent history to find a story that continues to resonate today.
About the Author
Sara is the author of the instant NYT Bestseller True Biz, as well as the books Girl at War and America is Immigrants.
She holds an MFA in fiction and literary translation from Columbia University, and is an instructor of Deaf studies and creative writing. She lives in Philadelphia with her family.
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