Girl at War is a journey through the trauma of the 1990s Yugoslav civil war, told by Ana, a child of war who becomes an adult tasked with coming to terms with its impact. Beginning in Zagreb as war breaks, and moving back and forth between the conflict, Ana’s subsequent new life as a teenager in the US, and her return to Croatia as a young adult confronting the ghosts of war, everything about this novel is designed to communicate the horror of war in the most subtle, non-gratuitous way possible.
There is great power in the coupling of a sparse, almost factual written style with affecting scenes which speak the volumes words alone cannot reach. One episode where the children relinquish the much-coveted bomb shelter generator bike to a school-friend whose brother is one of the first casualties of war is a poignant portrayal of children dealing with the unfamiliar, unnatural distress of war:
Our classmate Tomislav found his older brother in an alley a block from their house, his blood already congealing and caked into the sidewalk cracks. No one ever told us what had happened, not directly, but from the conversations that occurred above our heads, we knew.
I saw Tomislav underground during a raid two days later. The rest of us were shoving in line for the generator bike when he showed up. We stopped pushing and stared. The starkness in his eyes scared me much more than if he had been crying. The boy who was riding stopped without discussion. Tomislav passed us and mounted the bicycle.
For a moment I watched him as he pedalled furiously, turning his pain into power, something tangible and scientific. Then we dissolved the line and moved to another corner of the shelter to give him some privacy, which seemed like the right thing to do according to the code of wartime behaviour we were making up as we went along.
By juxtaposing quotidian events in Zagreb with the insidious creeping-in of war – including shopkeepers challenging children about which ‘side’ they are on during their hitherto regular purchase of parents’ fags (a different time in so many ways, the early 90s) – Novic reminds us how thin the line between war and peace can be, and that the bombed populations we see on TV are ordinary citizens like ourselves, and not somehow innately adept at coping with war. ‘Ana’ and I are a similar age, but whereas I spent my 11th year on earth grappling with the dilemma of whether to give up my love for Jason Donovan to Joey of New Kids on the Block (I felt terribly disloyal, but you can’t fight your heart at that age), Ana spent hers grappling with something quite different (#nospoilersatBrontesPageTurners, but the last revelation in Ana’s tale is arguably the most shocking). No natural order dictated which of us ended up in each scenario, just those random historical confluences that citizens are caught up in.
Finally, Novic’s masterful handling of the pivotal forest episode and its aftermath conveys the incident’s severity without excessive blood or gore. Eavesdropping on the Yugoslav war via the 90s newsreels might give you a factual understanding of what happened if you found yourself on the wrong side of a soldiers’ road block, but Novic’s carefully executed scene expresses the terror of those atrocities in a way that makes you realize you really did not fully comprehend them before. Be prepared for your jaw to drop in a silent scream.
Girl at War is not a comfortable read, but it is a great read and like An Unnecessary Woman it taught me a lot about a war that I had been aware of on the margins of my existence as a carefree child and young teenager. It’s the sort of book you can imagine Hollywood lending its treatment to, but I hope it doesn’t because a) knowing my luck, Keira Knightley and her excessive pouting will land the lead role , and b) I’m not sure a film could replicate the subtle horror Novic creates. Saying that, my favourite film is Home Alone, so I may not be the best judge of this. Read the book and let me know what you think.