Book review: Girl at War

SLOBODAN MILOSEVIC gets one mention early in this novel and while Karadzic and Mladic are not referred to, they cast a long shadow over the people and places of this evocatively told story of surviving the genocide of the Bosnian war.

Sara Novic

Abacus, £8.99

The central character is a 10-year-old girl, called Ana Juric, growing up in Zagreb in the early 1990s with her infant sister and her parents.

A tomboy, she cycles around the streets of her home with her best friend, Luka.

The story of the war that enveloped Croatia during the fragmentation of Yugoslavia is told through her perceptive eyes.

Familiar ingredients of war stories permeate the first section of the book as food is rationed and sirens send families sprinting to air raid shelters and so on.

Because our narrator at this stage of the story is a child there is that additional sense of vulnerability.

Ana’s kid sister Rahela is sickly and her condition worsens until her parents are forced into the only option left to them which is to take the offer from an international medical aid organisation and have her sent to America for treatment.

It is arranged that a foster family will take her for her convalescence.

This scene is harrowing for the mom and dad and their road trip from Zagreb to Sarajevo for the flight is one of heart-rending bleakness where love of their child has forced them to leave her go.

With something of a spoiler alert for the next couple of lines, there follows the central event of the story where they drive back towards Zagreb and run into a Serbian roadblock.

Ana and her parents have their wrists bound with barbed wire and are forced with others to walk into a forest where they are made to kneel at the edge of a pit.

From a distance, Serb soldiers take target practice and shoot systematically left to right at those who are on their knees.

All that Ana’s dad can come up with in that hellish end is for Ana to tuck in tight beside him, watch him and to fall at the exact moment that he falls.

She does and she remains among the dead bodies until she feels she can crawl alone to safety.

All of this is told in the first quarter of the book. The story is very well structured in that the next section leaps forward 10 years to when she is a student in New York and living with the foster family who went on to adopt her sister, who is now called Rachel.

While as readers we want to know what happened back in Croatia 10 years earlier we are now in the hands of a narrator who is finding it hard to tell herself or anyone around her what happened to her.

The story that we want to find out about is the story that she must come to terms with before she can get on with her life.

What Novic manages very effectively is to create a sense of ordinary life in persuasive living details, whether it is in 1990s Croatia or 2001 New York.

It is good on that idea of the young adult trying to find her way in the world and in Ana’s case having to lie to herself and to others to get by.

The American section of the book is problematic in two ways. Firstly, bringing the events of 9/11 into this book feels like over-reaching and not essential to the novel and secondly, some of the extended family of Italians — pleasant as they are — feel like they have come direct from central casting.

Ana — and indeed the book itself — find their mojo in the final section when she travels back to the places of her childhood to find old friends and to engage with the ghosts of her past.


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