Girl at War – Sara Nović

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.

In the Media: 17th May 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

Two excellent UK prizes – the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize and the Desmond Elliot Prize announced their longlist and shortlist, respectively this week. The former has eleven women on a longlist of fifteen. Yes, that does say ELEVEN, that’s 75% of the shortlist (well, 73.3 if you’re being pedantic). And the latter is an ALL WOMEN shortlist of three, from a longlist of ten that had gender parity. Excellent news.

You can read interviews with two of the Desmond Elliot shortlisted writers, Cary Bray and Emma Healey, in The Bookseller

Two important pieces about sexual abuse and victim blaming were published this week: Hayley Webster ‘31 years have passed with me thinking I asked for it…but what if I didn’t‘ on her blog and Lizzie Jones, ‘Sexual Assault: Society, Stop With the Slut Shaming‘ on The Huffington Post.

 

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music and Fashion:

The interviews:

 

If you want some fiction to read:

If you want some poetry to read:

The lists:

In the Media: 10th May 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

It’s Mother’s Day in 80 countries around the world today. Not surprisingly, there has been a whole range of articles, from a whole range of view points, about mothers and motherhood this week. The Hairpin ran a series including  ‘Mommy Queerest‘ by Sarah Liss; ‘Thoroughly Modern Murdering Mothers; or, Women Who Kill for Their Children‘ by Meredith Haggerty; ‘A Joke, A Story‘ by Naomi Skwarna; ‘Going for the Burn: Revisiting Jane Fonda’s Workouts‘ by Alison Hamm’ ‘Mothers and Moms‘ by Haley Mlotek, and Randi Bergman, ‘The Weirdest Beauty Tips I Learned From My Mom‘.

Tameka Cage-Conley wrote, ‘Motherhood, Art, And Police Brutality‘ on VSB; Amy Shouse wrote ‘My mom never wanted kids‘ on Salon; Anne Enright wrote, ‘When Mother Leaves the Room‘ in The New York Times; Cheryl Strayed wrote, ‘The ‘Painful Personal Toll Lung Cancer Has Taken on My Life’‘ on The Huffington Post; Monica Hessler, ‘The long drive to end a pregnancy‘ in The Washington Post; Mary HK Choi, ‘The Dicks Of Our Lives‘ on Buzzfeed; Mary Elizabeth Williams, ‘Sorry about Mother’s Day, my childfree girlfriends: Moms aren’t any more special (or unselfish) than you‘ on Salon; Edwidge Danticat, ‘A Prayer Before Dying‘ on Literary Hub; Brogan Driscoll, ‘I Refuse to Celebrate ‘Dad Bod’, Until We Appreciate the ‘Mum Bod’ Too‘ on the Huffington Post

Catherine Bennett wrote in The Guardian, ‘It’s dehumanising to be ‘an oven’ for someone else’s baby‘; Jessica Roake wrote, ‘An Ode to the “Mom’s Night Out”‘ on Slate; Rebecca Mead wrote, ‘A Woman’s Place Is on the Internet‘ in The New Yorker; Sophie Heawood wrote, ‘I’ve read all the advice, but I still don’t know – am I raising a serial killer?‘ in The Guardian; Laila K wrote, ‘Up with the kids‘ in The Pool; Dahlia Lithwick, ‘“Bye-Bye, Normal Mommy”‘ on Slate; Christie Watson, ‘The Joy and Pain of Trans-Racial Adoption‘ on Literary Hub; Meagan O’Connell, ‘It’s My First Mother’s Day As a Mom. Now What?‘ in The Cut; Kate Spencer, ‘How I Finally Let Go Of Grief For My Dead Mom‘ on Buzzfeed; Domenica Ruta, ‘Can Having a Child Help Me Get Over My Abusive Mom?‘ in The Cut.

Danah Boyd, ‘I Miss Not Being Scared‘ on Medium; Melissa Duclos, ‘To the Doctor Who Reported Me to Child Protective Services‘ on The Offing; Christopher Frizzelle, ‘The Day Virginia Woolf Brought Her Mom Back to Life‘ on Literary Hub; Lauren Laverne, ‘“Mum” as a diss‘ in The Pool.

And if you’d rather read a book instead, Literary Hub suggests, ‘Five Intense Books for Mother’s Day‘ and the Huffington Post recommends, ‘Mother’s Day Reads: Eight Great Mother Characters in Literature‘.

Photograph by Idil Sukan

In the UK, there was a general election. 3AM Magazine ran a whole series of reactions including, Lauren Elkin, ‘an open letter to mark-francis vandelli‘; Juliet Jacques, ‘london – 2015‘; Eley Williams, ‘rosette manufacture: a catalogue and spotters’ guide‘, and Rachel Genn, ‘you wouldn’t like me when i’m disappointed‘. Other reactions included: Laurie Penny, ‘Don’t give in: an angry population is hard to govern; a depressed population is easy‘ in the New Statesman; Joan Smith, ‘Almost a third of all MPs are now women – a milestone has been reached‘ in The Guardian; Janice Turner, ‘Why the north is in revolt against Labour‘ in The Times; Beluah Maud Devaney, ‘Unfriending Tories on Facebook Is Not the Answer‘ on the Huffington Post

And there were a few pieces written prior to the result that I still think are worth reading: Sam Baker, ‘When voting doesn’t make you feel good‘ in The Pool; Suzanne Moore, ‘By Friday we’ll be reduced to bystanders at a revoltingly macho political stare-off‘ in The Guardian; Concepta Cassar, ‘Food For Thought: Hazlitt, Malthus and the Tragedy of Food Banks‘ in Litro; Katy Guest, ‘Sandi Toksvig’s Women’s Equality Party is a movement for which time has come‘ in The Independent; Salena Godden, ‘Colour-blind: What colour are you?‘ on her blog, and Isabel Rogers’ poem ‘The truth about political correctness‘ on her blog.

I promised myself I wouldn’t mention it but there have been a few good pieces written about the birth of THAT baby: Sian Norris, ‘She’s not like other girls…‘ on Sian and Crooked Rib; Heather Havrilesky, ‘Royal Baby Girl Fated to Lead International Mob of Fake Princesses?‘ in The Cut, and Viv Groskop, ‘She’s a tiny baby, not a Kardashian‘ in The Pool.

Congratulations to Gill Lewis who won the Little Rebels children’s book award with Scarlet Ibis this week; to Emily St. John Mandel who won the Authur C Clarke award, and to Alice Notley who won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Foundation Prize. A gender balanced shortlist was announced for the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2015 and a female dominated one for the Branford Boase Award 2015. The ALS Longlist and NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlists were also announced.

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

Society and Politics:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction to read:

If you want some poetry to read:

If you want some non-fiction to read:

Photograph by Cybele Knowles

The lists: