This is an enlightening story about what it can be like to grow up in a civil war and then to escape to another country. Or be forced out, depending on how you look at that part of it but I don’t want to spoil anything either.
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 debut by a writer who has stared into recent history to find a story that continues to resonate today.
While parts of the story can be rather a bit explicit, I wouldn’t call it any more graphic or triggering than the Hunger Games. That said, I don’t really know what would trigger someone who has lived through such things, so let me know if you disagree and I’ll gladly change it.
As stated in the synopsis, the story follows Ana Juric. It’s a bit of a coming of age story and it switches between her childhood in Croatia and college years that start out in the US. For me, the most striking thing about the story was the way social protocol silenced Ana about her experience. I’ve seen this pan out similarly with my mother, who lived in Cuba for a while in her childhood. She never talks about it with me or my brother but then she told my husband a whole bunch of things about it that she had never shared with us. She felt like we didn’t really want to hear about any of it, like we were asking to be polite but really prefered she not mention it, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
To me, it was fascinating to hear about it. Then again, that puts one in the other bind that we get to see Ana go through as well. She fights off being disaster porn and one of the easiest ways to do that is to simply not tell people that you were a part of whatever the disaster is. But the story is really about her realization that she can’t ignore what she was a part of just because she doesn’t leave in that world anymore. It’s about reconciling her past and her present and figuring out where that leaves her to go in the future.
Her story didn’t follow a stereotypical path but most adult readers are probably familiar with many parts of it. Many parts of her story are those that we hear of here when we do talk to refugees and immigrants who come from war-torn places. Still, the writing is what makes the story compelling. It reads a little like a young adult book, but I think that’s mostly because it’s told in the first person perspective of a new adult who is remembering her past. I like that perspective choice because it relates a deeper understanding of the thought process of a person in those situations as they carry out whatever actions they do. The movement in time help in the endeavor to give both her perspective as she’s doing things and the way she feels about it later.
Honestly, the only thing I didn’t really like about the story was that I felt like the end of the book snuck up on me. I didn’t feel like there was a specific climax and it felt unresolved. I didn’t like that as an ending while I understand it’s beauty as an ending too. That happens sometimes where the perfect ending isn’t a particularly satisfying one.
That didn’t ruin the book and I’d still recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction or books with female protagonists or diverse reading. I got my copy from the library but anyone looking to buy can click on the cover and be redirected to Booklikes for worldwide options.