Girl at War by Sara Nović is a remarkable novel that broke and healed my heart more than once. We go back and forth between ten year-old Ana Jurić in Zagreb, Croatia, and the twenty year-old college student in New York she becomes.
Ana’s childhood in Zagreb was a happy one, she played with her great, good friend Luka. They both came from poor, but happy families, secure in the love of parents, friends and relatives. However, when they are ten, the war came to Croatia. We see the war through her child’s eyes when it begins “The war in Zagreb began over a pack of cigarettes,” an over-simplification that makes sense to a child.
Ana has a younger sister who was born with only one functional kidney, requiring health care they cannot provide in a city being bombed by the Serbs. The family drives to meet with health care NGO workers who arrange for the younger sister to go to America and stay with an American foster family while she gets medical treatment. The family’s return to Zagreb is interrupted by tragedy.
We shift to Ana in New York ten years later, preparing to testify at the UN about the experiences of children at war. She lives with her sister’s foster family and is going to college, studying literature. The narrative jumps back and forth, filling us in on what happened in Croatia and how she came to be in New York and her search for integrating her past and present.
I enjoyed the youthful Ana, tomboyish and free-spirited, a little sassy, but when adult Ana picked up Rebecca West’s miraculous Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and fell into it, I fell in love. How could I not love a character who loves my favorite book, a book that I constantly go back to for insight. As an evangelist for this wondrous book, I was thrilled to read about another reader who was captured by her history and travel memoir.
This is a wonderful novel. Ković captured the naive voice of childhood so well, but then does just as well writing honestly about violence, trauma and its aftermath. She moves from childhood to young adulthood, from happiness to grief, from carefree to traumatized and never strikes a false note.
So much of what people write about war is written from the perspective of adults, after all, wars are an adult business. It is the adults who decide to go to war, who decide how war is waged, who decide when and if to make peace. But children are always the greatest victims of war, losing that sense of security and certainty that should be every child’s birthright. For children, there is no such thing as a “good war,” school is interrupted, playgrounds become dangerous, friends and family did, they often go without needed food or healthcare and are sometimes, are directly victimized, killed or force to kill as happened in Sierra Leone. Girl at War is a reminder–if we need reminding–that children pay the price of our bad decisions and our hatreds and fears.