Girl At War by Sara Novic | Book Review 28/2019

If you’re like me, you have grown up and matured in a world that has experienced several wars that you have been protected from experiencing yourself so you’ve been insulated and maybe even inured yourself from knowing too much about, from your position of safety. The war between the Serbs and Croats is one of those for me, so I was appreciative of the style of writing Sara Novic employed in telling the story from a a child’s perspective in Girl At War. Here, we meet a ten-year-old Croatian girl named Ana, growing up under the Milosevic regime and seeing the layers of the war unfold gradually, replacing even the coldness she had accepted as normality, eroded to war.

The plot of Girl At War is revealed with almost journalistic edge, the voice of a carefree and curious child seeing divisions and sides, without knowing that her allegiance has already been pledged because of her heritage, so that she inherits a war fought by her forefathers.

Novic includes these literary references that work to endear the characters but also acts as metaphors for the external factions, like the fairytale rendering of a snake who appears as  a seductive woman. She presents the atmosphere where everything that was once beautiful is now a victim of war – cathedral churches made ugly by scaffolding, child games that are slightly less violent replicas of the massacres playing out in the streets.

Even the main character’s baby sister, Rahela, the new life that should be the perpetuation of the family, becomes sick and must leave the country to find healing. Rahela’s journey becomes a symbol of the experience of a country – the infant  country recently independent from what was once Yugoslavia, the potential of a child to grow up and become anything, the arc from health to illness, the attempts to get help from the least of our enemies and finally, the need for international assistance, even while compromising the original intent. Yet amidst the turmoil of a real war, we also have a tender reflection of a youth gaining maturity and absorbing from her surroundings, even those lessons she wish were never taught. Thus the author invites us to compare the playful scene of children devising their own war games on page 50 and the too-real encounters when the play acting ends on page 89

Because of the time when I chose to read this book, I was also reading a book about black South Africans who were forced from their homes and moved to townships during apartheid. In a story told by Sindewe Magona, we also see refugee children to schools, breaking sibling and neighborly ties forever, and eroding what should have been the childhood relationships that help form the basis of our formative years (click to read my review of Magona’s book, Mother To Mother. I was also reading Almost Home by Ruma Chopra which depicted the historical deportation of Maroon groups from Jamaica to Canada in the eighteenth century, and that narrative highlighted the effect of displacement and the real life struggle that so many groups and cultures have endured just trying to regain their sense of home. Maybe reading those other books around the same time made me hypersensitive but Novic’s story really moved me and if you’ve read other war reflections or novelized versions of real-life war accounts, leave me a recommendation in the comments below.

Book Details

  • Title: Girl At War
  • Author: Sara Novice
  • Pages: 368
  • Publisher: Random House
  • Release Date: March 22, 2016
  • Setting, Zagreb – Croatia
  • Main characters
    • Ana – 10 year old Croatian native
    • Luka – her best friend. His family is from Bosnia
    • Rahela (Rachel) – her sister


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