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Girl At War by Sara Novic | Book Review

(Note: the first section of this review will be spoiler-free, I’ll let you know when that changes!)

I purely picked this book up as the October book pick from sunbeamsjess on YouTube. I didn’t know anything about it going in and I was interested to see what it was like.

I have a very love-hate relationship with historical fiction. If it’s accurate, I usually enjoy it. If it’s informative, I usually enjoy it. If it’s strongly romanticised, I will throw it out a window and stamp on it. To cut a long review short, I enjoyed this book – so fear not skeptics like myself.

This book is set in Croatia, during the Yugoslavian Civil War. It is told from the perspective of a young Croat girl, before, during and after the events that shaped her life.

You may ask, what sort of audience this book is aimed at, and I would have to tell you that I have no idea. At first glance, it reads like a Young Adult novel. It uses simplistic language, a young protagonist (at two points in her life, both as a young child in Croatia and as a young adult in America) which would back up the idea of this being appealing to a young adult. However, some of the violent and disturbing scenes contained within this novel would beg to disagree with this categorisation. Overall, I would class the novel as a mature young adult text, perhaps aimed at a reader of 17+. However, do be warned that the novel, particularly the scenes in war-torn Croatia, are distressing and upsetting for sensitive readers.

As I mentioned, I hate books that are historically inaccurate and that romanticise horrific events in history. Luckily for me, this book avoids those stereotypes. I have heard, from someone who was there, that this novel is a very accurate depiction of what war was like in Zagreb. Novic herself has links with Croatia and so has a knowledge of the war that is reflected in her writing. Furthermore, as a deaf writer, Novic is very unique, focussing more on the smell and sight of war than the sounds of gunfire or bombings. Sounds are included in the novel, as Ana is not deaf, yet the true images of war are often represented using the other senses. (I’d highly recommend reading this article, written by Novic, about her hearing impairment – I found it very interesting.

If I were to find a problem with the historicism of this book, it would simply be the scope. Due to the first person narrative of a naive child, we are given a very narrow view of the war as a whole. Nevertheless, the personal nature of the narrative provides an intimate look at what war was really like for the average Joe. This is more something for the new reader to be aware of, rather than a reason not to pick up the book.

Overall, I gave this book 4/5 stars and would highly recommend it, especially to a reader who is seeking a gentle transfer from YA to Adult novels, or to the history buff who wants an accurate, personal narrative of the Yugoslavian Civil War.

(Psst, this is the point for all you nonspoilery people to leave, no hard feelings, see you again when you’re done reading!)

Let’s delve a little deeper shall we.

Firstly, let’s have a look at the best bits – the parts in Croatia. I think it’s relatively unanimous that the first part of the book is by far the best. Personally, I few through this section, practially putting tooth picks in my eyelids to stay awake. This section to me reminded me of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas with it’s childish naivity and simple prose. However, the events for Ana were much more violent than those for Bruno. Despite the obvious bloodiness of this conflict, Novic is delicate in her use of the gruesome, war-time images, really incrasing their impact when they do appear. Moreover, when horrific images are presented there’s a frankness about it, it’s not overdramatised, it’s not made to sound worse than it is – it sounds like the retelling of a desensitised narrator, really helping to add a chill to the narrative.

Obviously, I have to talk about the scene where her parents are murdered. I’m not going to lie to you and tell you I cried, because I’m made of stone and never ever cry at books, but I did end up sitting very very still with my right hand pressed over my heart. The simplicity of this scene and the obvious love of Ana’s father is touching, but the most memorable moment for me was her realisation that her father wasn’t going to be coming with her. As she shook his lifeless body, I was right there with her. It was a truly beautiful scene, and is one of the primary reasons I could see myself reccomending this book.

Then we have the parts in New York. I really don’t know what to say about this. Ana is supposed to be in her early twenties, however she has the attitude and emotions of a seventeen year old, going through the stereotypical ‘angsty teen’ phase. I understand why this portion was included, it shows the reader that even a decade after the war has ended, Ana is still at war with herself. Unforgiving of the fact she lived while her parents died. Perhaps the best analysis of this section would be a psychoanalytical one, but for me, I thought it fell a little flat.

Then, Ana returns to Croatia, and it picks up again. Personally, I found the New York section did impact how I read this portion negatively. It seems, at least to me, that Ana matured immensely on the plane ride from America to Croatia. One she was back on Croatian soil, she seemed to me a more realistic twenty-year old. I much prefered this portrayal, but do think it was a jarring shift after the angst of the second part.

Finally, I just want to say a few things about Ana as a character. It’s hard to think of any other characters in the book as it’s very Ana-centric. I challenge you to think of something we learned that didn’t directly affect Ana. I challenge you to think of a story were heard, or an event we witnessed that was not fundamentally about Ana. Ana is never just an observer, every event of the novel happens directly to her. Obviously, a degree of this is expected due to the first-person narrator, but I felt it was very noticeabe in this text.

This Ana-centricness I feel creates an unsymathetic persona about the character, most evident in her reaction to 911. Ana is unable to appreciate that others are going through suffering. She is unable to accept that others are hurting. Her pain must be worse than all those around her. I can’t remember the exact wording, but I belive it’s Luka who, after she has returned to Croatia, breaks her bubble by reminding her the war was not just hers, everybody was affected. Even when she is told about all the tragic things that happen to Tomilav, she seems to have no feelings of saddness on his behalf as she is so wrapped in her own suffering. I think this, and the fact that she doesn’t wish to tell people about what she’s gone through, are the culprits for the narrowness of perspective. Ana does not care about others, and so she does not ask about their story.

Reading back over this, it all sounds very negative, but I assure you, I really did enjoy this book and found it to be a thoughtprovoking read. As I mentioned previosuly I gave it a 4/5 stars due to it’s fast pace, historical accuracy, beautiful scene building and simplicity of style, it really lost it’s star due to my own personal quams with the character.

It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but I’d reccommend it to my mother and thus I’d reccommend it to you. Let me know what you think in the comments!

2 thoughts on “Girl At War by Sara Novic | Book Review

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