Books

You can’t go home to Yugoslavia again: Girl at War reviewed

Girl at WarGirl at War

Sara Novic
Random House
May 12, 2015

“‘What kind of question is that?’ he asked after a while, his voice raw. ‘Of course we want to go back. Of course we’re going home.’”

At the heart of Girl at War is the idea of home. Debut novelist, Sara Novic, tells the story of Ana Juric, a ten-year-old Croatian girl living with her family in Zagreb in 1991. We are introduced to her small apartment, family, friends, the city she loves, school, and all the everyday trappings of growing up. But then the Croatian War of Independence starts, and home is no longer a comfort, it’s a hazard. This is Ana’s life now: the Croatian War of Independence, which was part of the greater Yugoslav wars, would introduce the world to the phrase “ethnic cleansing” and used rape as an official war strategy. The war takes her many places and shapes her in many ways she can’t seem to forget.

In many ways, Ana’s life before the war was similar to so many others: making do the best a family can, spending summers at the coast with friends, and recording music off the radio with a supply of cassette tapes. As the war starts, Ana handles it with a childlike unawareness. Yes, she is scared of the bombings and terrified at one point when she wakes up in the bomb shelter alone after her family went back to the apartment. But Ana and her best friend Luka also fight with other kids over who gets to ride the exercise bike in the school air raid shelter or run amidst the ruins of shelled buildings as if they were whole.

Only when her baby sister, Rahela, gets sicker and sicker do they have to leave Croatia to seek treatment for her. Heartbreakingly, the only way to treat Rahela’s illness is to send her to the U.S. via a humanitarian aid foundation. On the way back and after Ana’s first ever visit to a restaurant, they are stopped by the Serbs militants. The borders are closed to Croatians, and they are led into the woods. Only Ana leaves the forest the next day.

Then the book jumps ten years ahead to Ana’s time in college in New York. This section is entitled “Somnambulist” and rightly so. Ana drifts through NYU as a twenty-year-old like a sleepwalker. She has a perfectly nice, but bland boyfriend who ends up not being able to handle her war history after she finally confesses her past to him. The section illustrates the holding pattern that is Ana’s life. She’s waiting for something and needs to find it. She finds some manner of comfort in the United States with the American parents who fostered and then adopted Rahela, but not necessarily a home.

After speaking to the UN about her experience as a child soldier, something that Novic elaborates on in the next section, she says, “But I knew no matter how I twisted my words I could never explain that I felt more at ease among those rifles than I did in their New York City skyscraper.” Novic deftly shows Ana’s displacement when she shows her visiting Ground Zero a few days after September 11. It’s strangely comforting to her, to see the rubble and the smoke, and it’s a hard passage to read. It was another reminder of my privilege growing up in a place and time when violence and destruction are a shock, not a strange familiarity.

Impulsively she goes back to Croatia, reliving the days and weeks immediately after her parents are killed. She meets up with Luka and recounts her time as a child militant. Novic describes the shock and deadened way Ana navigates the world as she stays with a group of Croatian defenders. She is ten, an orphan, and a soldier. It’s hard to fathom, but the reality of the experience settles heavily on the reader.

This final section is where Ana tries to discover if Croatia can ever be home again. Traveling with Luka to the seaside cottage they visited as children is the soul of the novel. Here Novic’s clear and descriptive writing lets you see Ana both as the child she was and the adult she can be in the future. It’s at once both hopeful and sad. Everything is not rainbows and unicorns, but I got the feeling that Ana was able to start again, that she has the power to make wherever she chooses her home. It’s an incredible novel, and I look forward to more from Novic.

Breakup of Yugoslavia

The former Yugoslavia today.

Finally, I also felt a little personal connection to this beautiful and hard book. In some ways, it’s a life I could have had in a parallel world. My great-grandparents were a “mixed marriage” couple of Serbian and Croatian families who emigrated to the U.S. in the early 20th century. Novic talks of one of these such families disappearing in the night in a chilling offhand passage in the book. I would have been about the same age as Ana in the 1990s, had a few generations of my family stayed in the Balkans. In no way is this my story; other than this book and a few others, I have no idea what life was like in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. But here is me, Anna, reading about little Ana Juric and the horrors thrust upon her, and it’s hard not to imagine a different life.