I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher (Little Brown Books) via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review
Release date: May 21th 2015
I might just start reading nothing but debuts, because there’s been so many good ones this year. In Girl At War, Sara Novic’s beautiful writing really brings to life a country torn by conflict. But it’s also a tender, realistic coming-of-age tale which perfectly captures a myriad of emotions, without ever being overly emotional.
Girl At War tells the story of Ana Juric, a girl who is just ten when the civil war breaks out in Croatia. The war creeps into her world innocuously enough, when she is challenged trying to buy a packet of cigarettes for her Godfather. As the story develops, the tension building becomes more difficult to ignore; her family live on rations, the children are warned of mines on the streets; a schoolmate’s brother is killed. But even as the war is making its presence felt, it still feels a little distant as Ana lives out her childhood against the backdrop of conflict. The scenes of brutality are interspersed with Ana and her best friend Luka cycling around the area, doing things that any children would do whilst the country falls apart around them, The juxtaposition between life and death, as families try to continue with their normal lives while the war rages on, is perfectly poised.
“They’re killing them.” the man said.
“Who?” said my father, studying the paper for clues.
“Would you like some soup?” said my mother.
But eventually the war and Ana’s home life collide, and it becomes impossible to ignore. The epic conclusion at the end of part one of this book took me completely by surprise, and has to be one of the most harrowing chapters I’ve read in a novel.
The book is split into parts which move forward and back in time. From Ana’s childhood, we jump forward to rejoin her as a 20-something student in New York. But while she is physically miles away from the war she grew up in, it has never left her mind and she is haunted by dreams of dead bodies.
“The dream bodies were encroaching on my consciousness. Even before I’d dropped fully into sleep I felt their cool, rubbery skin against mine as surely as I did the cotton weave of my sheets.”
Things come to a head when her boyfriend want her to move in with him, and Ana realises she can’t leave the demons of her past behind. So she embarks on a journey back to the warzone she grew up in, and she fills the reader in on her story along the way.
The thing that struck me about this book is how real it feels. There’s beautiful prose on every page, but it’s never pretentious or exaggerated.
“I couldn’t remember a time when the cathedral wasn’t at least partly swathed in scaffolding and tarps, but that only added to its sense of majesty, its wounds a physical manifestation of the sorrows and confessions of the city.”
The dialogue – which has to be one of the most difficult things to recreate authentically in fictional form – felt spot-on throughout. I particularly enjoyed Luka and Ana’s tentative reunion in the latter part of the book, and the dialogue between them as they revisited the past and began to look to the future.
There were times when I felt that I didn’t really know who Ana was, but I think that was the point – she didn’t know who she was, that’s why she went on this journey back to her hometown. She tells her story with almost a sense of impartiality, but the reader can always sense the feelings bubbling beneath the cool exterior. Her childhood and adolescence was defined by war and change, and as a result she struggles to understand her own identity; to find a place where she can truly be herself. Novic perfectly captures that confusion, and the journey to find who Ana really is was a pleasure to follow. It’s an impressive debut, and I’ll definitely be looking out for more from this author.