Our past never really leaves us, as much as we try to leave it behind and erase the marks it leaves on us. The especially painful memories etch themselves deeper than those of happier times.
In Sarah Nović’s first novel, Girl at War, her protagonist Ana Jurić lives “suspended between the living and the dead” after witnessing the atrocities of the Croatian War of Independence. Violence methodically consumes everything that was once good and innocent in her young life, ensnaring 10-year-old Ana, her mother and father and her baby sister, Rahela. Not fully understanding the growing danger, Ana and her best friend, Luka, try to continue being kids, riding their bikes all over Zagreb, teasing one another, and making games out of the power outages and food shortages. When the war inevitably becomes personal to Ana and her family, it does so in truly horrific fashion.
Nović steers us along Ana’s trajectory from an impressionable and impatient child to a 20-year-old New York college student soon after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Ana has spent the past 10 years refusing to talk about her history to most everyone outside her adoptive family. Memories of what she has endured haunt her and propel her toward seeking some kind of resolution. Her mind continually returns to the pain of her past; it is only a matter of time before her feet must follow.
Nović’s observant prose is visceral and incisive, capturing Ana’s inner turmoil and vulnerability as well as the practiced harshness she tries to use to cover it. Her story is also firmly rooted in the tangible. Detailed depictions of the horrors of war share space with the mundane, everyday aspects of a child’s—and then a young woman’s—life. Nović writes in a self-assured voice that ably carries the weight of tragic history and explores the depth and contradictions of the human response to that history. A remarkable story of one girl’s struggle to survive and her struggle with surviving when others did not, Girl at War is devastating to read but too compelling to put down.
RELATED CONTENT: Read our interview with Sara Nović.