Ana Jurić has spent the last ten years not talking about what happened to her and her family in 1991, when Yugoslavia collapsed and war broke out. In Girl at War, by Sara Nović, Ana returns to Zagreb to find any friends and family who survived the war, hunger, and genocide. Girl at War is the story of a girl who has been surviving, but not living, for a decade. Ana is looking for a home, but where can she find people who can understand what she’s been through?
Girl at War begins in 1991. Ten year old Ana and her family live in Zagreb. The language in this section is simple, as befits a young narrator. Ana is unaware of the political tensions brewing between the different ethnic groups in what would soon become the former Yugoslavia. She is bewildered when the man she buys her godfather cigarettes from asks her if she’s buying Serbian or Croatian cigarettes (6*). As Ana tells it, the war officially began while she was running errands for her mother. Air raids soon become a part of Ana’s daily life. She and her friends cope well. The family’s luck runs out when her younger sister, Rahela, starts to die from renal failure. The only way to save her life is to have Rahela evacuated from Sarajevo to the United States. On the way back from Sarajevo, Četniks (paramilitary Serbian forces, named for Yugoslav fascists who fought during World War II) stopped the family in a roadblock. They murdered every Croatian they stopped. Ana only escaped because her father thought of a way to trick the Četniks.
Part II of Girl at War jumps us to 2001 in New York. Ana is on her way to give a speech at UN Headquarters; the topic of her speech is hidden for a few pages as we wonder what happened after the massacre and how Ana managed to escape. We learn that in America, no one could help with her grief and her anger. At first, Ana would speak of her traumas to the Americans who adopted her and her sister but:
After those initial bursts of curiosity, no one spoke to me about my past, even within the family. Laura developed euphemisms for me “troubles,” the war and its massacres reduced to “unrest” and “unfortunate events.” (127)
When Ana later tells her boyfriend about her parents’ murder and her time as a child soldier, he suggests she go back to Croatia because “It might give you some closure” (160). The few Americans Ana talks to often trot out this kind of pop psychology because nothing like what happened in Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia ever happened in the United States.
All of Ana’s bitterness and sorrow and pain have been festering for ten years. The only relief she gets is from books by authors who discuss the trauma inflicted by war and war crimes. A sympathetic professor gives her books by W.G. Sebald and others. The bibliotherapy is some help. The UN speech, however, brings her memories of Croatia up from repression. Within a few days, Ana decides to go back.
The bulk of Girl at War takes place after Ana’s return to Zagreb and begins searching for her godparents and old friends. Nović also gives us flashbacks to reveal how Ana survived the months between her parents’ murders and being returned to Zagreb, before being spirited out of the country entirely. In Croatia, Ana finds an entire nation of more or less successful survivors. The war is no longer her “own personal tragedy” (193). Traveling reveals that most towns have their own memorials to the dead. Though Croatia is no longer the home Ana longs for, she doesn’t have to hide her past the way she did in America.
I have a feeling that Girl at War will frustrate some readers. The ending is ambiguous. There is none of the closure that Ana’s American friends and family would want. That said, I find that Girl at War has intriguing things to say about the nature of memory and healing. In Girl at War, there is no closure, but there is resolution. Ten years after tragedy, Ana’s healing process has begun.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher’s publicists, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 12 May 2015.
* Paraphrases and quotations are from the 2015 hardcover edition by Random House.