I picked up Girl at War by Sara Nović after I saw that Goodreads had recommended it to those who appreciated the writing of Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. And now it has been nominated for a Goodreads Choice award in two categories: Best Fiction and Best Debut Goodreads Author. Girl at War is a story of a little girl who finds her tomboyish existence interrupted by the civil war in Yugoslavia. Even with my aversion to stories about war, something in the description of the book caused me to still pick it up.
The Situation: Ana Jurić lives with her mother, father, and little sister Rahela in Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia. The book begins with Ana and her family spending summer in the city, when they usually spend it in the small fishing village of her godparents, but the Serbians had blocked the roads to the sea. It would be only one of many things that will change how Ana is used to living her life. Soon there are air raids and rations, and the family must take the risk of traveling when Rahela becomes sick and the local doctors can do nothing for her. What happens in Yugoslavia will be a story that Ana struggles to tell over the next ten years, even after she becomes settled and established in the U.S.
The Problem: In 2001, Ana is now a student in New York City, living on campus, and studying English literature. After struggling with telling her story, and the realization hat most people really don't want to know the real truth, Ana becomes accustomed to simply lying, believing this is the best way to go. If people don't want to hear her past, then she is more than capable of trying to forget about it. But on September 11, 2001, when two planes strike and take down the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, Ana understands that war and terror can follow her, even in the U.S. Even if the Twin Towers hadn't fallen, Ana's incessant nightmares are reminder enough. After reconnecting with someone who helped her get out, Ana now wants to go back to Zagreb, visit her home, and maybe get some answers about the friends and family she had to leave behind.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that I was initially tempted to place under the heading of historical fiction, but since most of the conflict in the book took place in 1991, using the violence in the Balkans as the backdrop, I felt like it was all too recent for that, even though that was now almost 25 years ago. Since Ana is the narrator, the reader gets to see the war through her limited vision, and experience the confusion and fear that comes with being a child being forced underground during an air raid, or forced to hide in the back seat of a car at a scary and heavily guarded checkpoint. Much like Marra's book, Girl at War explores what children are capable of when forced to rely on themselves to survive in a hostile and war-torn environment. Ana did things she never thought she would learn to do, or have to do. And some of the things she would rather not think about ever again.
My Verdict: This book has excited a lot of people. I read one review that stated it was the kind of book that makes a person excited about the future of fiction. While I can't say I feel quite the same way, I did enjoy the book, and I can understand why others are excited. It is a tough subject to deal with, and it can easily be done with too much honest brutality as well as too little to the point of not being truthful. It is a fine line to walk, but I think Nović does pretty well. I actually wished it had been a little bit longer and explored more of what happened with Ana's little sister, Rahela. And while it is clear from the beginning that there is something Ana doesn't want to talk about, something even the reader doesn't know until near the end, I didn't find the final reveal of what that was all that compelling, even though it was an incredibly big deal, especially for a little girl. Maybe there wasn't enough build-up, or the actual reveal was too rushed, or maybe it was to be expected...I don't know. But even with that, it is still a great book, and despite the subject matter, a surprisingly easy read.
Favorite Moment: When Ana, still a little girl, finds sanctuary in a stranger's house. Although she won't speak and barely moves from her adopted corner of the room, the family leaves her alone and lets her be still and silent.
Favorite Character: Ana's father. Her father continued to read her bedtime stories even after that air raids had started, and he knew the stories by heart.
Recommended Reading: I certainly recommend A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Marra, which takes place during the conflict in Chechnya.