Book review: Girl at War

Sara Novic’s debut novel is a superb examination of conflict and its aftermath, writes Malcolm Forbes.

Yugoslavian sisters and their children flee Donji Miholjac in Croatia in 1991 during the war for independence that provides the backdrop to Sara Novic’s first novel. Laurent Rebours / AP Photo
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In one of her essays collected in Café Europa (1996), the Croatian author and journalist Slavenka Drakulic writes about the crimes her country committed as a fascist puppet state during the Second World War, and her generation's inability to learn from history. "Perhaps," she goes on, "this is the reason why we are now, with this recent war, sentenced to live in the past."

That recent war provides the backdrop to Sara Novic's powerful debut novel, Girl at War. The book's protagonist, Ana, is 10 when the Croatian War of Independence breaks out and 20 when she returns to her homeland after having embarked on a new life in America.

Too young to be condemned to “live in the past”, Ana is instead deeply scarred by it. Her story is an important and profoundly moving reading experience.

“The war in Zagreb began over a pack of cigarettes.”

From her arresting and somewhat cryptic opening line, Novic sets the scene and builds the tension. Ana is a tomboy who enjoys long summer days outdoors with best friend Luka in the Croatian capital. But Serb soldiers are advancing on the city, rumours abound about concentration camps, and Slobodan Miloševic is on TV looking like “a dejected bulldog” and ranting angrily about “cleansing the land”. When the presidential palace is bombed, Ana, her parents and ailing baby sister Rahela find themselves under siege.

Just when we think the novel will be a tale of one family fighting for survival, Novic changes direction, topples our expectations and then floors us. After a trip to Sarajevo to put Rahela on a flight to America for urgent medical care, Ana and her parents are halted by a roadblock and a gang of drunk, AK-47-toting Chetniks. Hauled out of the car and bound with barbed-wire cuffs, they are herded into a group of other prisoners and led in a procession into a dark forest towards the mouth of a large pit.

Girl at War is being marketed as the lead fiction title of 2015 for Random House US and Little, Brown UK. It is too early to debate whether it is the standout debut novel of the year but it will be interesting to see if another novelist, particularly a first-time novelist, can match Novic's bravura, gut-punching opening section.

Once we get our breath back we discover that in the next section Novic has fast-forwarded a decade. Ana is now a student in New York and reunited with Rahela. She tells the story of her ordeal during the Croat-Bosniak war to the UN; to her friends and to boyfriend Brian she lives in denial, claiming to be New Jersey- born and bred.

But over time that stage-managed deception, along with a genuine yearning to reconnect, becomes too great, forcing Ana to make a much-postponed return pilgrimage to Croatia to come to terms with her own personal tragedy and learn the fates of the loved ones she left behind.

Novic has lived in America and Croatia, and writes with authority about both. However, her Croatia sections are far and away the strongest in the book.

Her American interlude creaks with the usual Old World versus New World clichés, and is hampered further by attempts to convey Ana’s crippling trauma through overdone referencing of W G Sebald and desultory treatment of 9/11.

Swapping the land of opportunity for a decidedly straitened Croatia, Novic does two interesting things with Ana for the remainder of the novel: she has her tour post-war Croatia, culture shocked by her own culture and overcome by alternate waves of nostalgia and torment; and in an extended flashback that comprises the grittiest, grimiest section of the book, she shows Ana as a child-soldier battling to stay alive.

As we accompany Ana on her journey we travel through a range of emotions. There are the twitchy, nail-biting initial scenes of air raids, shelters and sniper fire, all of which serve as prologue to the terrifying round-up in the forest. There is poignancy in Ana’s unanswered letters to Luka, excitement as she is smuggled out of the country by UN peacekeepers, and horror at what she is made to endure and later live with.

“[D]o you think it makes sense to open old wounds?” Brian asks her. “Open them?” Ana replies.

“History did not get buried here,” Ana tells us at one point. “It was still being unearthed.”

Girl at War is a superb exploration of conflict and its aftermath, and a stark reminder that while ceasefires and peace treaties may end the fighting, they don't always end the suffering.

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance ­essayist and reviewer.