The war in Zagreb began over a packet of cigarettes.
Ana and her family usually go to the coast for the summer but this year, the year she turns ten, the Serbs have blocked the road. The couple they usually holiday with – her parents’ best friends, Petar and Marina – join Ana’s family for dinner the weekend of her birthday.
Petar plays a game with Ana: she runs to the shop to buy his cigarettes and he times her. If she beats her time, she gets to keep a few dinar from the change. Confident she’s about to set a new record, she sets off.
“Do you want Serbian cigarettes or Croatian ones?” The way he stressed the two nationalities sounded unnatural. I had heard people on the news talking about Serbs and Croats this way because of the fighting in the villages, but no one had ever said anything to me directly. And I didn’t want to buy the wrong kind of cigarettes.
“Can I have the ones I always get, please?”
“Serbian or Croatian?”
“You know. The gold wrapper?” I tried to see around his bulk pointing to the shelf behind him. But he just laughed and waved to another customer, who sneered at me.
Soon classmates are disappearing, air raids begin and the men are shaving their beards. Ana learns her family is on the ‘blue’ side, that of the Croatian National Guard.
Ana spends most of her time with her friend Luka biking around the town square. He’s always asked hypothetical questions and now he focuses on the war:
…what did Milošević mean when he said the country needed to be cleansed, and how was a war supposed to help when the explosions were making such a big mess? Why did the water keep running out if the pipes were underground, and if the bombings were breaking the pipes were we any safer in the shelters than in our houses?
Things become more difficult for Ana’s family when her younger sister, Rahela, falls ill. After she’s been vomiting for two weeks and their mother has spent days negotiating ‘the complex web of Communist healthcare’, they take Rahela to Slovenia to see a doctor. Dr. Carson is English and part of MediMission. She discovers Rahela’s kidneys aren’t functioning properly but without access to further medical care, she has to send them home with some medicine to see if Rahela’s condition can be stabilised. When it’s clear Rahela isn’t getting any better, their parents arrange for MediMission to send her to America to be treated. It’s the journey back from Sarajevo which triggers the events leading to the rest of the novel.
The book’s structured so it moves between ten-year-old Ana’s story and twenty-year-old Ana, a university student living in New York. When we first move to the older Ana, she’s going to give a speech at the UN about the war in Yugoslavia. Inevitably, this triggers memories of the time and a desire in Ana to return to Croatia and face the events of a decade ago.
Girl at War is a story of both a girl involved physically in her country’s civil war and mentally in the intervening decade as she fights to deal with the psychological consequences of what she’s seen and done. Some of the greatest scars are left by unknowns – whether people she was close to managed to survive.
Telling ten-year-old Ana’s story from the point of view of the twenty-year-old but with the naivety of the young girl works well. It allows Nović to deliver gruesome lines in such a matter-of-fact tone they hit hard. For example, when refugees arrive from Vukovar and Ana’s mother offers one some soup, he tells them:
“He took my wife,” the refugee said. “I heard her screaming through the wall.”
Luka and I just stared, afraid to move.
“He had a necklace strung with ears. Ears off people’s heads.”
There were several points I had to put the book down, unable to continue reading until I’d digested the enormity of what I’d just read. The horrors of war are clear but Nović’s pacing means they aren’t compacted so when a significant moment arrives it really packs a punch.
It’s difficult to believe that Girl at War is a debut novel. It’s powerful; it’s thoughtfully constructed; it highlights a war that’s not been widely written about and considers what it means to be a survivor: what’s lost and what’s gained. I suspect this will be making a lot of end of year lists, including mine.
Thanks to Little, Brown for the review copy.