Review by Carly Robinson
Nović’s debut novel is a stunning account of how the horrors and atrocities of war creep into everyday life and slowly tear apart the world of a young girl. Nović skilfully portrays how the effects of the Yugoslav civil war permeate into Ana Juric’s family and home life, affecting her everyday existence, the fabric of her relationships, and resulting in a shocking event which changes the shape of her life forever and sets her on a completely different trajectory to the one she had imagined. Set in early 90’s Croatia against the backdrop of the atrocities that humans are capable of inflicting on one another, as Ana learns about herself, her identity and what she is capable of withstanding she also learns about the human condition, its capacity for love and kindness as well the darkest forms of torture and genocide. Ana has a lot to deal with from a young age and Nović imbues her protagonist with the best response to the fight or flight dilemma that she is faced with, going above and beyond the self preservation instinct to survive. Serious feminist icon her character may be, but as she struggles to come to terms with her experiences growing up within her adoptive family and country, Nović subtly traces the unresolved internal conflict which threatens to damage Ana’s hard built outer exterior.
Although the conflict in the Balkans is relatively recent history, you don’t need to know anything about the Yugoslav civil wars to appreciate the war commentary of the novel. This is a story rooted in historical fact, written with the intensity of what feels like personal experience and a deepening knowledge of the human psyche, all from the perspective of a young girl. That’s no mean feat. Nović deftly explains the racial tensions within Ana’s tight knit community of Zagreb, from the subtle changes in the way neighbours interact with other, to the wider landscape of the shifting Croat/Bosnian borders and the harsh reality and shocking realisation that a surname could mean the difference between crossing the border or dying there.
Ana’s search for her family and friends upon her return to Croatia years later keeps the reader gripped, but Nović does not feel the need to wrap everything up neatly at the end of the novel and this is what makes it sing. Ana has come to terms with what happened but it will always still haunt her. Nović has that rare ability to write stark uncompromising prose about war crimes from the raw view of the victim without letting the narrative dwell in morbid and morose self-pity for her protagonist. She draws out the contrasting experiences of living with war, both in terms of the quotidian food rationing, bombings and blackouts compared with the distant idea of what it means to Americans who have never experienced its harsh reality. Her use of shifting time sequences to engage the reader and almost allow the story to run as a mystery, with the switch in time and place to New York, leaves you reeling from the stark contrast of the previous episode in Croatia. Girl at War has been marketed as a coming of age story, but with its war commentary, diasporic explorations of notions of identity and home, and an insightful exploration of how the father-daughter and mother-daughter dynamics shape the character of Ana throughout the traumatic events that befall her, it is ever so much more.