The Short Version: Ana Jurić is a young girl in Zagreb in 1991 when war breaks out across Yugoslavia. She survives the conflict and manages to escape the country. Ten years later, as a college student in New York City, she decides to return to Croatia and make a kind of peace with her past.
The Review: Humanity’s capacity for cruelty will never cease to amaze me. The only thing about us, as a species, that is perhaps more amazing is our ability to transcend that cruelty and combat it by making something beautiful.
Girl at War is one of those beautiful works.
I’m not quite old enough to remember the conflicts in the Balkans – the Yugoslav Wars, as they’re all broadly known – and even a class in college on “Post-Soviet Politics” only glanced across them. I knew that there had been a genocide in Bosnia and that the country of Yugoslavia was one of those bone-headed imperialistic holdovers, where a state was formed out of many disparate smaller states whose interests didn’t actually align. I knew little else, until I picked up this book – which then spurred me to do some research, while reading. I know more now, about the Croatian War of Independence, about the Hague’s decision that the actions in Croatia were not genocide, but also I still don’t know enough. I don’t know that I ever could, really.
Nović’s novel begins with Ana, our main character, at age ten and just beginning to notice that something is going on in her world, something she can’t quite understand. The opening line of the novel reads “The war in Zagreb began over a pack of cigarettes” – a line that refers not to the actual war itself, but to Ana’s understanding of it. Such a subtle distinction, but an important one – one that makes it clear that, for Ana, that’s how the war did start. It places us squarely in her mind, a place she’s reluctant to let anyone – but that we’ve already been allowed into.
The scenes in the first part of the book are like watching something curdle: you know that something terrible is coming, you can feel it, but the moment-by-moment doesn’t seem all that out of the ordinary. The family and town adapt to the air raid sirens, they adapt to their friends being conscripted/joining up, life (as it does) goes on. Until it doesn’t. The end of part one is, without doubt, one of the most harrowing things I’ve ever read – and Nović does not look away. It is a triumph, beautifully rendered even as brutal as the subject might be.
Then, we jump forward: ten years, Ana in New York, a student at NYU. She’s speaking before the UN about child soldiers and living a sort of double life. The details of her last ten years come out slowly, all while she’s living in the immediate shadow of 9/11 and dating a decent guy and reading Sebald. She has, on the one hand, a normal undergraduate life… but on the other, she is completely different from everyone around her. The scenes in New York reminded me of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, a mysterious girl running around New York City with a life she doesn’t quite understand. Both Nović and Rachman capture the feel of New York in the winter, New York in your 20s – New York at a time before all this present-tense (a New York I didn’t know but always dreamed of as a kid).
But, before long, Ana is leaving the US behind and headed back to Croatia. It’s a little bit of a bummer, because we had just gotten to know this older Ana and the paradoxes of academic life in a city like this are rendered so well even in passing… but the whole time we’re in it, we know that (as Ana knows) it is only a pitstop. In order to grow up, she’ll have to go back.
There’s a brief interlude, however, where we get to see what Ana did after the end of part one. I won’t say too much about this, although the reader will know the outline by the time Ana is done with her speech to the UN so it’s not like I’d be spoiling anything. Rather, I struggle to be able to articulate what happens here. The reality of it is that Ana does become a child soldier, for a short spell – and earlier, she compares herself to the child soldiers of Sierra Leone, saying “we weren’t kidnapped and spoon-fed narcotics until we were numbed enough to kill”… but you get the sense that Ana is numbed in a different way, not through narcotics but through overwhelming emotion. There is a fog of stillness around this section that belies the action contained therein – another masterstroke by Nović.
Ana’s eventual coming-to-terms with the war, with her childhood, with the unanswered questions that will remain unanswered – this is the final part of the novel and I’ll only say that, again, Nović delivers with care and kindness an ending not “perfect” but instead totally correct. It would be disingenuous to expect a happy ending, an ending with answers – because there are no answers to be had, not really. The politics and propaganda of a war zone don’t take into account the individual human lives and we, those of us who live in the so-called First World and have never had to live through war or genocide or terror… how can we really understand? The only way, I think, is through novels like this. Novels that make you put down the book and go to the computer or the library and do research. It is not the same as living it; it couldn’t be. Ana’s insight into the American psyche during the earliest days of the War on Terror is enough: she had lived through a war where war meant life and death, every day. In this country, the war was being fought halfway around the world and while we retain, even still, the vestiges of fear… it’s not the same. I’m not sure it ever could be. But most of the rest of the world doesn’t have that luxury and so we must hope that novels like this will arrive and remind us of that fact.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. This thing just knocked me over. And this is a debut novel, folks – Ms. Nović is my age and she’s writing about war, about the psychological toll of a struggle most people in my generation barely know occurred, with what somebody might call wisdom beyond her years. Not only did the book inspire me to stop and do research so that I could understand even better the circumstances surrounding the conflict, but it retained such a hold that when I was done doing said research, all I wanted to do was pick the book up again and keep going. There are passages of almost ethereal beauty as well as passages of harrowing brutality – sometimes both at the same time. A transcendent read, whatever the combination.