Girl At War is not a perfect novel, but it is a powerful one. Like many books that deal with disturbing themes and events, its occasional stylistic infelicities will be almost immediately forgiven and forgotten by readers gripped by the matter-of-factness with which Nović narrates her upsetting tale.
We open in Zagreb, Croatia, 1991. Ten-year-old Anna Jurić is a headache to her mother, a delight to her father, and best friend to Luka, a neighbour boy and schoolmate. As the civil war gets nearer and nearer to Zagreb, Ana and Luka adapt, in the curiously malleable way of children, to their changing lives. When Ana’s infant sister Rahela is diagnosed with renal failure, however, her parents determine to get her out of the country and into an American hospital. It’s on the way back from a trip to put Rahela on a MediMission flight that Ana and her parents are stopped at a roadblock, taken from their car, bound, marched into the forest, and shot, along with a dozen others. Ana survives only because her father, heartbreakingly, tells her to play a game: the soldiers are so drunk that if she falls into the mass grave in sync with her father, they may not notice. Only after the strategy has worked does Ana realize she was the only one playing—her father really has been shot, and really is dead. So is her mother, who, in her father’s words, was “going to go first.”
Clawing her way out of the grave hours after the soldiers have left, she stumbles toward the nearest village, mute and traumatised. Here, the first section ends, and we pick up ten years later, with Ana a twenty-year-old attending college in New York. This section of the book is less effective: as a ten-year-old, she was a touch bratty but believable, whereas twenty-year-old Ana is petulant, fidgety and uncommunicative. Certainly, these are realistic traits for a child of war, but we’re simultaneously asked to believe that she is holding down a degree, a boyfriend, and all of her memories about Croatia: “In America I’d learned quickly what it was okay to talk about, and what I should keep to myself…I’d told Brian [her boyfriend], as I’d told everyone else at college, that I was born in New Jersey.” To utterly repress such devastating memories is not uncommon; what doesn’t convince is Nović’s attempt to make it appear as though no one has noticed. Ana doesn’t give off a strong enough impression of self-control to make it seem plausible that she could pass, straightforwardly, for a privileged New Jerseyite with an attitude problem. Even if she did so, what motivation would her mentor, Professor Ariel, then have had to keep giving her thought-provoking books on the sly?
Ariel is perceptive: he has long guessed that Ana is from “somewhere else”, although when she asks what tipped him off, his answer—“Because you have an old soul”—is rather too gnomic for my liking. It’s his encouragement, though, that leads Ana to seek out the writings of W.G. Sebald and, eventually, Rebecca West. Through reading West’s magisterial Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Ana at last musters the courage to go back to Croatia again to try to sort through her past.
Girl At War is, essentially, exploring questions of the past and of survival. Is it possible to live a satisfying adult life when your childhood has been so comprehensively taken from you? How do you lay ghosts when your memory is capricious, when you don’t even know who all the ghosts are? At its most emotionally involving, its way of dealing with these questions is utterly heart-wrenching. The third section is a flashback to Ana’s training as a child soldier. Here, Nović recounts fear, rage, and the numbness of grief unsentimentally and with skill. Some touches are both instantly endearing and illuminating: when the commander of Ana’s paramilitary unit nicknames her “Indiana Jones”, we feel Ana’s flush of happiness and recognize how intoxicating it can be for an uprooted child to feel accepted, no matter by whom. The book’s most horrifying moments happen here, too: the reported rape of a fifteen-year-old; the moment in a cornfield when Ana makes her first face-to-face kill. It’s not the horror that carries this section, though; it’s the conviction. The imagery and action, the sense of real emotion and real damage, is at its most vivid and profound here.
Her return to Croatia, by contrast, seems unreal at times even to her. Ana is seeking closure, but she has settled into habits of thought that jar against the reality of life for those who still live in the area: “You don’t get to claim the war as your own personal tragedy here,” Luka reminds her when they are reunited. I found myself wishing that Nović had explored that point further. The scenes that show Ana feeling uncomfortable in the new Zagreb, where Luka’s cousins poke fun at her for being Americanized when her whole self-identity is bound up in not being American, are moving and saddening. So is her visit to a nightclub with Luka, where they’re served by a bartender who went to primary school with them, and whose whole family was ruined by the war. These flashes of pure emotion—longing, loneliness, sorrow—contrast sharply with Ana’s pettier resentment and jealousy of Danijela, Luka’s ex-girlfriend, who gets only a page and a half’s worth of scene. The descriptions of Danijela suggest that she’s frivolous and flirtatious, but the fact that Ana perceives her this way only betrays Ana’s own deep insecurities. The psychological progress that she needs to make, in order to move through and beyond the traumas of her childhood, is not easy. It’s to Nović’s credit that she doesn’t make the return to Croatia a magic cure for Ana’s problems, although I sometimes wondered whether she was going to be capable of any growth at all.
Eventually, she seeks comfort at Tliska, a seaside village where she and her parents used to holiday with family friends Petar and Marina. In an act of symbolic rejuvenation, Ana and Luka clean Petar and Marina’s abandoned beach house from top to bottom, and the end of the book suggests that Ana’s healing process will continue. Nović leaves some of the plot’s loose ends untied, for which I was grateful; she provides enough information to allow the reader to imagine a conclusion. Girl At War falls into some of the traps of the debut novel—primarily that of too much telling and not enough showing—but its freight of loss and hope will stay with its readers long after they close its covers.
This review is part of the promotional blog tour that Little, Brown is running for Girl At War; many thanks to the LB publicity department for providing me with a review copy of the book! See below for the rest of the tour schedule: