English Animals, by Laura Kaye

English animals drinking and playing games in the sunshine

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Laura Kaye’s debut novel has been praised as being, amongst other things, a timely novel for our post-Brexit political climate, but what strikes me about it is that in many ways it is spectacularly timeless. Homophobia, xenophobia, and the capacity of the English upper classes for almost childish cruelty: these issues are not confined to the present moment, and British literature has a long history of exploring them. But English Animals is no Brideshead redux; instead it’s a savvy outsider’s look in, at an establishment struggling to reconcile its habitual complacency with the demands of modern economics. It’s also a finely drawn portrait of forbidden desire.

Mirka is nineteen, from Slovakia. She has spent the past year in London, living with flatmates she hardly knows, so alone that on Christmas Day her celebrations consisted of a solitary walk to a McDonald’s. Answering an advert for live-in help, she travels to the countryside (we’re never told exactly where, but at a guess, it’s somewhere like Suffolk or Sussex) to live at Fairmont Hall with Richard and Sophie Parker. Mirka expects that she’ll be caring for children, but the job is stranger than that: Richard, who’s married into the estate, runs a small taxidermy business and hosts shooting parties to make money. Mirka is expected to help him skin, stuff and pose the animals, and to act as a beater for the shoots. Initially, she doesn’t think she can handle it, but with practice, she discovers she’s more skilled than Richard is, and business picks up.

We learn that Mirka is gay before the end of chapter two. As a character, she is straightforward, principled, and honest in a way that marks her out from her British employers: she doesn’t do ambivalence or circumlocution. Her “coming out” to Sophie occurs on a walk through the house’s grounds:

“Did you have a boyfriend before you came to England?” Sophie said.

“I had a girlfriend,” I said.

“Oh,” Sophie said. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to assume… Oh, that’s terrible of me. I just thought—”

“It’s OK,” I said. “Everyone is the same.”

[…] “I mean, so you’re gay then? Or was it only one girl?”

I already knew all the questions she would ask. “I’m completely gay.”

(How many times, in your reading experience, has a character said the line “I’m completely gay”? How rare and important is that even now?)

Sophie, in perfectly calculated dialogue, reveals that she had “a couple of flings” with girls at university, though she’s keen to emphasise that she wasn’t, like, in love with them or anything. The stage is set for a sort-of love triangle, which we duly get, with Mirka and Sophie carrying on an affair during the hours Richard spends out of the house, in the pub or on the far reaches of the estate.

Antagonism comes from two sources: David, the part-time groundskeeper at Fairmont, and William, Sophie’s father. One of Kaye’s biggest successes is conveying the real grounds of the discontent that people like Nigel Farage took advantage of during the Brexit debate. David only works every other day at Fairmont; the other local big house employs him for the rest of the week. Clearly, neither estate can really afford to keep him full-time. When the owner of the neighbouring house sells up and the new owner, an Australian, decides to let David go, he’s in trouble: two days a week, or even three, isn’t enough, but the money is less the point than the sense of humiliation and diminished professionalism. David’s hatred for Mirka would be implacable even if she were straight: in several brief but chilling scenes, he tells her to go back to her own country, and we can see his thinking. What is this foreign woman doing here, when red-blooded Englishmen like David who’ve worked the land for generations can’t get a full-time job?

It’s Sophie’s father William who is both the most broadly-drawn character and, oddly, one of the most convincing. Kaye’s touch is light, but her point is made: he sees Mirka, literally, as a servant.

“Could you make us some more Pimm’s?”

“Yes, of course.”

“I’ll do it, Dad,” Sophie said.

“I think Mirka and I have this under control,” William said to her, then turned back to me and put his finger and thumb against the jug. “You want about that much Pimm’s and the rest lemonade. And ice.”

[…] When I came back, William held out his glass and I poured the Pimm’s into it. Then I walked around the edge of the rug filling everyone else’s glass.

Hard to read, very hard, without feeling pure rage. The conversation doesn’t improve: William holds forth on the iniquities of gay marriage (“What I object to is them trying to normalise something that patently isn’t”). Sophie is nervous and uncomfortable, and tries to change the subject, but she doesn’t make a stand. It’s a conversation we’ve probably all had, with some asshole relative or coworker, but to see it written down is a stark reminder of how often we fail to challenge them. “I knew people thought those things,” Mirka tells us, “but I did not think I would ever hear them on a lawn in England.”

One of the most impressive instances of integrity in English Animals is that Mirka never has a single thought along the lines of “I need to do [something] because they’re paying me.” There are things she absolutely refuses to do, things which involve self-respect and boundaries, and she will not be dissuaded. She is a real person with a real will and real preferences; Richard and Sophie are never allowed to forget that. When the estate books a large wedding and Sophie asks her to help out, she agrees but won’t wear a dress. Instead, she asks to borrow a tux from Richard. I don’t know quite why I like this scene so much: whether it’s the way a character’s autonomy is respected both by the author and by the other characters, or the way Kaye shows us how Mirka’s feelings towards the tux are exactly those that another woman might have towards a beautiful dress, or some combination of those and other things. It makes Sophie’s (inevitable) betrayal of Mirka all the worse: we know that she doesn’t take things like feelings and relationships lightly, that she can’t make compromises for social acceptance the way Sophie can and does.

The difference, though, is that despite her deep capacity for feeling, Mirka is an adult in a way that Sophie and Richard fundamentally aren’t. Their posturing friends (there’s a great scene at a house party where Mirka quietly punctures a man’s adolescent attempts at edginess), their frantic attempts to make money to keep the house afloat, their relationship’s reliance on alcohol and weed and a cycle of fighting and making up: these are all signs of a pervading and corrosive immaturity. Despite their pedigree, it’s the Parkers who can’t take care of themselves. Mirka, who’s had to leave Slovakia in the face of homophobia from her parents and community, who’s suffered hideous loneliness in London, and who’s been let down by the woman she loves most, ends the book walking away from Fairmont Hall on her own two feet. She’s walking uphill, towards the village, but she is not afraid: “I will find something for myself, I thought.” Maybe that resilience is what the British voting public so resents about immigrants; maybe it’s jealousy, conscious or not. So many of us have never really had to be adults. From characters—from humans—like Mirka, we could learn something.

Many thanks to Hayley Camis at Little Brown for the review copy. English Animals was published in the UK on 12 January. This piece is part of the official English Animals blog tour: check out the banner below for the rest of the week’s features!

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The Expatriates, by Janice Y.K. Lee

They radiate well-being and prosperity, the knowledge that someone cares about them enough to take care of them while they take care of the family.

the-expatriates

~~here be spoilers!~~

It’s odd, the title of this novel: The Expatriates. It’s also odd that there seem to be two slightly different cover designs for it—normally the UK and US versions, if they’re going to differ, do so fairly substantially, but in this case, there are just enough similarities that you could be forgiven for not really noticing. Both feature aerial cityscapes, with big lettering, but whereas in the UK version (above) the focus is on the architecture and the sky, the sense of metropolitanism, even the title font bold and crisp, the US cover is rendered in a much more italicized, cursive script. Its cityscape cover has been photographed just after sunset instead of poised at the moment of transition; there are lights on in buildings and in bars, and most of the lower right corner of the frame is taken up by a huge, glass-walled house. The inflection of the UK cover is “global”; that of the US cover, “domestic”. And, for once, I think the US cover may have nailed it, because—despite that baffling title—The Expatriates isn’t strictly about expatriates at all. It’s about motherhood.

Of course, it’s about motherhood in a specifically expatriate environment, where “expatriate” means “privileged”, but that privilege sits differently on some women than on others. Hilary Starr comes from money and doesn’t work; she and her lawyer husband, David, have been trying to conceive a child for several years with no success. Margaret Reade, meanwhile, has two children, and is suffering from the literal loss of her youngest: little G disappeared in a crowd last year, while the family was on holiday, and despite a public appeal, has not yet been found. Finally, Mercy Cho is the childminder who was meant to be watching G when he was stolen; when the novel opens, she’s twenty-four and unemployed, still in Hong Kong but struggling to make sense of her life and to find an acceptable form for her grief over a tragedy that she feels is her fault. Over the course of the novel, all three women will come to understand and accept motherhood as the highest possible goal of a life—a conclusion which, couched as it is in a foreign setting and an occasionally melodramatic plot, could be overlooked on first reading, but which becomes increasingly uncomfortable the more you think about it.

Initially, the book looks as though it’s going to be about precisely what it says on the tin. It opens with a two-page prologue about Hong Kong’s constant arrivals, and this sucks you in: Lee is great at writing what I like to think of as “general” or “blanket” prose, wide-ranging descriptions of a particular subset of people. It’s descriptive and precise while retaining a sense of sweep, and it serves her very well here:

The new expatriates arrive practically on the hour, every day of the week. They get off Cathay Pacific flights from New York, BA from London, Garuda from Jakarta, ANA from Tokyo, carrying briefcases, carrying Louis Vuitton handbags, carrying babies and bottles, carrying exhaustion and excitement and frustration…They are thrilled, they are homesick, they are scared, they are relieved to have arrived in Hong Kong—their new home for six months, a year, a three-year contract max, forever, nobody knows. They are fresh-faced; they are mid-career; they are here for their last job, the final rung before they’re put out to pasture. They work at banks; they work at law firms. They make buttons, clothing, hard drives, toys.

And so on. The beautiful precision of the description fades early on, though, and it is replaced by some curious repetition. Margaret, the woman who has lost her son, ends far too many of her chapters with the banal thought that you just have to carry on living, after disaster strikes, until you live your way into life again. It’s a true assertion, and endless grief is banal, but there are authors who manage to elevate that tedium of pain into something human and holy, and Lee does not; she simply repeats. Mercy, meanwhile, is astonishingly passive. Many of her chapters end with a bizarrely po-faced version of the whoops-a-daisy that tends to accompany novels featuring scatty, whimsical young heroines of the kind that Zooey Deschanel gets cast to play, a variation on “Of course [insert fresh new crisis here] had happened to her. Things like this happened to her. There was nothing she could do about. She was a magnet for catastrophe.” It’s solipsistic and self-pitying and, frankly, a bit disturbing. It is, again, true that twenty-four-year-olds are frequently solipsistic and self-pitying (I am one, I should know), but there are writers who present young adulthood in terms that are self-aware, and hence more successfully profound. Lee, again, just repeats.

There are some things that she does rather better. One is her description of Mercy’s short relationship with Charlie, a boy she knows vaguely from university and whom she dates briefly. He is oddly naive: born and raised in Hong Kong, he seems exotic to his childhood friends for having made it to America for college, but in Mercy’s eyes he is hopelessly unironic, uncool, provincial. She’s not kind about him, but in one of their dinner exchanges, Lee gives us a glimmer of understanding of how frustrated Mercy must be by their interactions. It’s one of the few times when we see a reaction instead of being told about it, and it’s understatedly powerful:

“What did you do today?” [Charlie asks]

Parrying his questions is so easy it’s like child’s play. “Such a boring topic!” she declares. “How’s work?”

And instead of saying, “And that’s not boring?” he starts telling her about work.

Which of us, o women, has not been there? This perfectly nice man, “cheerful, ebullient, a puppy eager to please”, is still not eager-to-please enough to grasp the level of unthinking, unconscious entitlement that his response reveals. No matter how eager to please he seems, he will never be as keenly aware of another person’s primacy as this woman—who is basically indifferent to him—is of his. I did a double-take when I read it: not out of surprise, just out of recognition.

The authorial emotional awareness present in that scene is strangely absent in other places, though, like when Mercy has an affair with a married man (who is, guess what, Hilary Starr’s husband, David). They’re having breakfast, a few months into their relationship, and he asks her “How are you supporting yourself?” (Why they haven’t had this conversation earlier is beyond me, but I digress.)

“I get jobs here and there,” she says. “I do a lot of different things.”

“Do you need any money?” he asks. It is so unexpectedly kind that her eyes fill with tears. It has been so long since anyone has cared enough about her to ask something like this, and to have an older, mature person consider what she might need, as opposed to her throng of twenty-something self-absorbed friends, is disconcerting and an awful kind of pleasure.

An awful kind of pleasure, it certainly is. It’s conceivable, of course, that a young woman could feel so isolated that her married lover’s offer to give her money makes her feel weepily grateful, instead of patronised and insulted. The issue isn’t so much that Mercy is terribly vulnerable and a bit pathetic; it’s that Lee doesn’t appear to think she is. Her gratitude towards David is presented as totally natural and right, without the slightest hint of reflection or analysis or consideration that maybe she’s not in a very strong state right now. Likewise, this thought, near the end of the book, when Mercy knows she is pregnant:

That’s what a mother is, she remembers thinking, someone who puts others’ needs in front of hers, who takes the pain from others and swallows it herself. Her mother, Margaret: They are mothers…This good person, this figure who is selfless and forgiving: this is who she needs to become.

There is a sense in which that is true. There is another sense in which that is a restrictive and destructive untruth. Lee acknowledges only one of these senses, and it makes for slightly blink-inducing reading.

All of this makes it sound as though I didn’t enjoy the novel much, although I did. Lee’s ability to anatomise a swathe of society works well with the subject of expatriate culture; scenes at the American Club, for instance, where Hilary’s quasi-adopted son Julian is bullied by some expat boys and wreaks his own quiet revenge, are drawn with wonderful clarity. So is Margaret’s relationship to her domestic help and to the party planner, Priscilla, with whom she consults about her husband’s fiftieth birthday celebrations: that weird attempt to balance professionalism with the brute fact that you are addressing someone who is, functionally, a servant. So are the sections about readjusting to life in the US, which evoke a disorientation even worse for being so temporary: the implication is that most expats readjust very quickly, and feel a kind of unnameable guilt for that, for the homing natures of their minds. This is all thought-provoking and fascinating and well expressed. If you are happy to cope with the narrating voice’s apparent conviction that each character’s responses are precisely as straightforward as they are reported to be, there is a lot to enjoy here. But I would recommend taking it all with a pinch of salt.

Many thanks to the kind folks at Little, Brown for the review copy. The Expatriates was published in the UK on 12 January, 2016.

Landfalls, by Naomi J. Williams

Monsieur de Langle turned to me and said, Take a good look, Vaujuas, remember everything—when we get back to Europe this will all seem a dream.

It seems pretty unfair to refer to Landfalls as a debut novel. Naomi J Williams spent ten years researching and writing it; by the end of a decade, your familiarity with your subject and your facility at writing about it will have improved markedly. On the other hand, having poured so much of your life into your first novel must make you pretty nervous about its reception. Williams ought not to worry, though; Landfalls has been getting spectacular reviews, and for good reason. It’s an amazingly confident novel that acts as a prism for a dozen different characters’ voices. Her research is lightly worn but thoroughly applied–always an impressive feat for historical fiction. She’s funny and poignant by turns. Many of the novel’s interrelated chapters force us to think deeply about how and why we give credence to certain ways of interpreting events while dismissing or downplaying others, but Landfalls is much more than an undergraduate exercise in unreliable narration. Indeed, the unreliability is not so much the point; it doesn’t matter that different versions of events are presented, because an authoritative narrative isn’t the aim. Williams is producing something almost pointillist, a proliferation of stories and lives that suggests the ripple effect of events. Some of the most affecting chapters aren’t set on board the ships of the Lapérouse expedition that forms the novel’s backbone, or even told by expedition members; instead, they show us how these Frenchmen circumnavigating the globe have an impact on everyone they meet, from the wife of a provincial governor in California to an unnamed indigenous girl in Alaska.

It’s really, really hard not to bash your reader over the head with the fruits of your historical research. Williams manages it with a facility I haven’t seen in a contemporary writer since Hilary Mantel. Although the psychologies of her eighteenth-century France are less deeply plumbed than those of Mantel’s Tudor court, they’re just as nuanced. The opening chapter, in which Paul-Mérault de Manneron, the expedition’s naval engineer, is sent on a clandestine trip to London for maritime gear and advice, sets the tone perfectly. The period details are all there–the inconvenient length of coach journeys, the inclement weather on the Channel crossing, the uncomfortable lodgings and poor food–without seeming forced or artificial. Likewise, the rhythms of eighteenth-century thought are captured without resorting to pastiche. Lapérouse, who commands the expedition, thinks longingly and fondly of his wife Éléonore–he’s a good husband–but it’s clear that, though his affection is real, she’s much younger than he. There is no overt racism towards the indigenous peoples they encounter, at least not among the officers, but when native women are offered, most men do not refuse. Status and legitimacy preoccupy everyone: Lapérouse’s family purchased the surname for him in order to improve his career prospects, while the scientist Lamartiniére is incensed by the failure of everyone he meets to remember his name correctly and to accord him the respect he believes he deserves. Another scientist insists on signing all his letters with the title “Chevalier”.

The book’s emotional range is also impressive. There’s no lack of sardonic humour, although some of its concerns are very serious. Manneron, for instance, has been told to tell anyone who asks him why he’s in London that he’s employed by a Spanish merchant, one Don Inigo Alvarez. He is, understandably, incredulous at the notion that anyone would actually believe this; “It sounds like something out of a play!”, he shouts at the naval minister who instructs him. He’s also shocked that, in England, wearing a sword makes you effeminate, but carrying a beribboned ornamental cane in public does not. But the book is ultimately about a scientific expedition to circumnavigate the globe at a time when such a voyage was incredibly dangerous. There is tragedy aplenty in Landfalls: two longboats are lost in a freak tidal accident; a landing party is clubbed and stoned to death by indigenous islanders; a ship’s chaplain wanders off to botanize and is found with his head bashed in. These aren’t spoilers; we know, for instance, that Lamanon will die on a beach at the hands of Pacific Islanders at the very beginning of chapter two, for at the moment that Williams introduces him, she tells us, casually, precisely how long he has left to live. She deserves praise for making us feel these deaths as deeply as her characters do. Lapérouse is devastated, for instance, by the loss of the longboats, and cannot write the condolence letters that it is his duty to compose; Langle, the second-in-command, gazes out of his cabin window and realizes that he cannot predict every direction from which disaster could strike. Flitting back and forth between the minds of the two men, we gain sympathy for both of them, but we’re never allowed to become locked in to just one point of view.

The obvious strength of this approach is that it lets us view the expedition from many angles, including through the eyes of those affected by it. A young Inuit girl in Alaska narrates one chapter. She’s not presented as an exotic native specimen, but a fleshed-out human with interests and concerns that have nothing to do with the white men. Her cousin, who’s also her betrothed, has just died; she may have to marry his younger brother, who annoys her; the arrival of the Frenchmen is simply one incident in her life, not necessarily the defining one, and nothing much even happens when they do arrive. I appreciated that chapter as much for what it didn’t say as for what it did. I also appreciated that Williams makes it this way because it accords with the voice of the character; other indigenous women, such as the Siberian tribeswomen that the expedition’s Russian translator Barthelemy de Lesseps encounters, are silent, cheerful, and sexually licentious, and they are partly this way because we see them through de Lesseps’s eyes. He’s a good man but bounded by his time, and it would be too much to expect him to understand the contingent nature of the womens’ affection. Likewise, he fails to understand the nature of the love that his Russian guide, Goliakoff, has for him. The reader understands, though, and aches both for Goliakoff, who will never see Lesseps again, and for Lesseps, whose fear for his shipmates’ safety is somewhat assuaged by Goliakoff’s friendship, and who might have been better equipped to cope with his loneliness had he only realized what was available to him.

The proliferation of viewpoints is also deployed within chapters, to create uncertainty. Texts are written by more than one person, or testimony is given by contradicting witnesses. An officer is ordered to write a report on a disaster, and is paralyzed by the task; Lapérouse writes draft after abortive draft of his condolence letters; Lamanon composes missives to scientific contacts back in France which never arrive, or which are left unopened on a desk. Communication is consistently figured as fraught, disappointing, impossible. It’s one of the aspects of living in the past that I consider the most distressing: not being sure whether your words have reached someone else, or ever will. High Modernism taught us that no one speaks precisely the same language as someone else, so communication will be contingent no matter how advanced our technology becomes, but having to physically wait, sometimes for years, to know whether your son or husband or father is still alive must have been beyond nervewracking. In Chile, Lapérouse knows that he may not hear from his wife again until he reaches Macao. That’s a sail of nearly two years. In such a world, and even further bounded, most of the time, by deck, sea and sky, no wonder most attempts at conveying information seem to be stymied.

In Landfalls, Williams reclaims the emotional possibilities of the adventure-at-sea. Previously these have mostly been explored by male authors: Patrick O’Brian, for instance, whose Aubrey and Maturin novels beautifully evoke the deep brotherhood of seafaring men, or William Golding, whose Rites of Passage and its sequels show us the darker, crueller side of a claustrophobic life on board. It’s rare territory for a woman–quite possibly because there are supposed to be so few women in these maritime worlds, let alone writing about them–and Williams demonstrates to perfection that it needn’t be. Landfalls is one of those rare books that would make a very good Christmas present for nearly anyone; with the present-buying season upon us, I hope its sales figures benefit. It’s an evocative, intelligent, wonderful book.

Many thanks to Poppy at Little, Brown for the review copy!

We have a Stone Mattress winner!

The lucky reader is Tarzanman (also winning the prize for Most Amusing Username, so well done.) Congratulations, and enjoy the book—if you post a review of it, be sure to link me to it!

Lovelies who didn’t win, fear not, for I am sure there will be more giveaways to come. Thank you so much for participating! It’s tremendously exciting to watch this blog grow and YOU are helping to make it possible by reading it, which encourages publishers to send me more things.

I’ll have more reviews up for you soon (I just finished A Little Life and feel remarkably positive about it, and I will also soon be reviewing The Tokyo Zodiac Murdersand Naomi J. Williams’s beautiful Landfalls before its publication date on the 22nd.) I also have a Most Thrilling Announcement (well, for a given value of “thrilling”), so keep your eyes peeled for that too.

FREE BOOK: Stone Mattress, by Margaret Atwood

The lovely folks at Little, Brown have teamed up with a bunch of different bloggers to offer you a whole bunch of prizes, along with free copies of Margaret Atwood’s short story collection Stone Mattress, now out in paperback. The first one has already launched, over at The Writes of Woman. And one of the bloggers they’ve teamed up with is me!

Entering is very simple: add a comment below. It can be about Atwood–your favorite book of hers, your least favorite of hers, whether you think Oryx and Crake was an effective dystopia or not, how The Handmaid’s Tale changed your life–or it can be about the fact that you’ve never read her before, or it can just be your name. Anything goes! The winner will be chosen utterly at random, so you don’t need to worry too much about being witty.

Apart from a lovely (signed!) edition of Stone Mattress, the winner will receive a gorgeous yellow Lamy fountain pen, which is apropos, as the excerpt I shall give you is from the collection’s opening story, “Alphinland”–which is about a writer:

The freezing rain sifts down, handfuls of shining rice thrown by some unseen celebrant. Wherever it hits, it crystallizes into a granulated coating of ice. Under the streetlights it looks so beautiful: like fairy silver, thinks Constance. But then, she would think that; she’s far too prone to enchantment. The beauty is an illusion, and also a warning: there’s a dark side to beauty, as with poisonous butterflies. She ought to be considering the dangers, the hazards, the grief this ice storm is going to bring to many; is already bringing, according to the television news.

The TV screen is a flat high-definition one that Ewan bought so he could watch hockey and football games on it. Constance would rather have the old fuzzy one back, with its strangely orange people and its habit of rippling and fading: there are some things that do not fare well in high definition. She resents the pores, the wrinkles, the nose hairs, the impossibly whitened teeth shoved right up in front of your eyes so you can’t ignore them the way you would in real life. It’s like being forced to act as someone else’s bathroom mirror, the magnifying kind: seldom a happy experience, those mirrors.

You have until October 8th to enter. Good luck! (I’m also super nervous because I’ve never done a giveaway on the blog before, so…save me from embarrassment!)

Girl At War, by Sara Nović

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: 

Blog Tour flyer