author‘Girl at War’ by Sara Nović – Reading Matters

‘Girl at War’ by Sara Nović – Reading Matters

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Fiction – Kindle Edition; Little, Brown; 336 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

Sarah Novitch’s debut novel, A girl at war, He has the dubious honor of making me cry not once but twice.

This most influential story is about a 10-year-old Croatian girl, Anna Iorik, who fell into the civil war in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

After her parents are brutally slaughtered, she goes through a short period as a “girl soldier”, before her godfather arranges for her to be deported. Smuggled to the United States, she is adopted by an Italian-American family, where her life seems happy, but ten years later, haunted by what she experienced, she returns to her homeland to come to terms with what happened.

Idyllic childhood is disturbed by war

The book follows a non-linear timeline, so when we first meet Anna she lives in Zagreb with her parents and her working-class baby sister. She is a happy girl, spending time with her good friend Luca, when the war breaks out and Yugoslavia divides itself according to religious and ethnic lines.

At school, we were taught to ignore prominent ethnic factors, although it was easy enough to discern someone’s origins by their last name. Instead we were trained to utter pan-Slavic slogans: “Bratstabo i Jdinstabo!” Brotherhood and unity. But now it seems that the differences between us may be important after all. Luca’s family was originally from Bosnia, a mixed country, a confusing third category. Serbs wrote in Cyrillic and Croatian in the Latin alphabet, but in Bosnia used both, the differences in question are even thinner. I was wondering if there is also a special brand of Bosnian cigarettes, and whether Luca’s father smokes them.

As bombings, gunfights, and airstrikes begin to dominate daily life, we experience claustrophobia, confusion, and fear from the child’s point of view. Anna can see the devastation around her and then go home and watch it broadcast on TV.

As a side effect of the modern war, we had the special privilege of watching the destruction of our country on television.

So the book jumps forward by 10 years. Anna now lives in New York, where she is studying for a degree in English literature, but we have no idea how she got there or what happened to her in the past decade. Some of the gaps are supplemented by a speech she is invited to give at the UN.

“There is no such thing as a soldier boy in Croatia,” I declared as the next slide flashed – two teenage girls with camouflage and assault rifles marked. “There’s only one kid with a gun.”

and this:

We were not like the children of Sierra Leone, who on a continent far away, fought their battles that year; We were not abducted and spoon-fed until we were numb enough to kill, though now that it was over, I sometimes longed for an excuse. We received no orders, sniped at the JNA from windows blown up by ourselves, and then the next moment we played cards and did foot races. And even though I learned to banish weapons from my everyday thoughts, when I talked about them now I felt something I did not expect – longing. As the guns were jarring to the pale crowd in front of me, for many of us they were synonymous with youth, coated in the same varnish of nostalgia that brightens everyone’s childhood.

Hidden trauma

As an adult, Anna suffers from deep trauma, perhaps suffering from some type of PTSD, because she never sleeps and when she does, she experiences disturbing night terrors. She passes as an American, not as a Croat, so she never tells anyone about her past. He’s buried deep inside. Even her boyfriend does not know her ethnic background.

In America I quickly learned what it is okay to talk about and what I should keep to myself. “It’s awful what happened there,” people would say when I liberated my homeland and explained that it was the one near Bosnia. They heard about Bosnia; The Olympics were there in ’84.

But keeping this pretense exhausting. And the September 11 appearance and the American’s war on terror “evoke all sorts of conflicting memories and emotions.

The country was at war, but for most people war was more of an idea than an experience, and I felt something between anger and shame that the Americans – who I am – can sometimes ignore its impact for days at a time. In Croatia, living in a time of war means a loss of control, a war that controls every thought and movement, even while you sleep. It can not be forgotten. But America’s war did not bind me; It did not cut my water and did not shrink my food supply. There was no threat of takeover with tanks or infantry or cluster munitions, not here.

Anna begins to realize that she has to confront her traumatic past in order to continue in her life. She wants to know what happened to her friend Luca and his parents, for example, and so, using her savings, and against the wishes of her adopted family, she returns to her homeland to find answers to these questions.

Her trip is detailed in the last part of the book. It’s a painful rehearsal, but it allows Anna to rediscover the good things (as well as the bad ones) that shaped her identity and it gives us, the readers, the opportunity to find out how she was smuggled out of the country boldly. An operation that so many of our countrymen would never have been able to achieve.

A girl at war It is a powerful story about mourning, exile and war – and the trauma that lasts long after the cessation of hostilities.

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