Zagreb, summer of 1991. Ten-year-old Ana Jurić is a carefree tomboy who runs the streets of Croatia’s capital with her best friend, Luka, takes care of her baby sister, Rahela, and idolizes her father. But as civil war breaks out across Yugoslavia, soccer games and school lessons are supplanted by sniper fire and air raid drills. When tragedy suddenly strikes, Ana is lost to a world of guerilla warfare and child soldiers; a daring escape plan to America becomes her only chance for survival. Ten years later Ana is a college student in New York. She’s been hiding her past from her boyfriend, her friends, and most especially herself. Haunted by the events that forever changed her family, she returns alone to Croatia, where she must rediscover the place that was once her home and search for the ghosts of those she’s lost.
There is nothing that really distinguishes Girl at War from its counterparts. Although I am not an avid reader of historical fiction or war stories (despite what my recent reading history would have you think), I’ve read enough to know that the premise is hardly original, and in overcrowded market I expected Girl at War to give me more. I am not saying that it is a bad book: there were some solid foundations here.
War is an unthinkable evil, and it does not discriminate – nobody is left unscathed. It is particularly devastating to think about through the eyes of a child.
But the blood formed a pattern like a map to comprehension and I understood the differences all at once. I understood how one family could end up in the ground and another could be allowed to continue on its way, that the distinction between Serbs and Croats was much vaster than ways of writing letters. I understood the bombings, the afternoons sitting on the floor of my flat with black fabric covering the windows, the nights spent in concrete rooms. I understood that my father was not getting up.
Told in four parts, the book easily moves back and forth between pivotal moments in Ana Juric’s life – saying goodbye to her childhood as her parents are killed, her life in America, her time as a childhood soldier, and returning to Zagreb as a young adult. In all honesty, I found the book to be well-paced and well-written, however it felt like I was being told a story, rather than experiencing one.
There is an emotional detachment in the narration that I could not get past. On the one hand, I preferred it to the overwrought sentimentality that so many authors chose to employ when dealing with the effects of war. On the other hand, it was bland. Ana was angry – angry at the UN for their lack of action, angry at journalists, angry at Americans – but there was no fire behind her words. A few pointed remarks, but nothing that suggested passion.
What war meant in America was so incongruous with what had happened in Croatia – what must be happening in Afghanistan – that it almost seemed a misuse of the word.
And yes, Ana is quite obviously dealing with some kind of trauma brought on by her childhood, but if readers are having trouble connecting to your protagonist, then perhaps first person narration is not the way to go. Free indirect discourse would’ve been a much better narration technique with such an emotionally distant character.
Also, I had no context for the events unfolding in the book. I could’ve done with some background information – at one point I found myself wishing for an information dump. While it isn’t the author’s job to educate a reader on a certain subject, if the reader has to research the backdrop of your novel while reading, you have not done your job as an author. There were glancing references to certain events that led to the war, but I got the feeling that Nović knew as much about the war as I did: very little.
If you do like historical fiction and are looking for something a little different, this may be a book for you. Also, despite being marketed as an adult fiction novel, it reads like a young adult novel, so I’d also recommend it to YA’ers who are looking to move into adult fiction or who are willing to give adult fiction a go – I think it would work well as a bridging novel, so to speak.
Please note: this review originally appeared on my blog, What Kim Read Next. It has been reformatted and edited.