It is, perhaps, indicative of my reading habits that I found a novel centered on atrocities that occurred during the Yugoslavian civil war one of my more uplifting reads of the last several years. The events of the novel, of course, are horrifying—Ana’s experience of war at such a young an age can be described with few words other than synonyms of “horrifying.” Still, the core of the novel is not darkness; Girl at War is a novel infused with heart.
More so than anything else, Nović’s debut made me curious about a part of the world, and a time in history, that I know embarrassingly little about. At one point in the novel, Ana’s childhood friend Luka says, “Some people say the Balkans is just inherently violent. That we have to fight a war every fifty years.” At the time I am writing this review, Russia has invaded Ukraine—not itself a Balkan country but certainly near enough that the outcome of the conflict occurring there might easily touch its Balkan neighbors. Though the situation in 2022 is far from the same as the situation Ana experiences in 1991, I found it hard as I was reading to keep the region’s violent history separate from the news scrolling across my screens.
At another point in the novel, when Ana is in her 20s and living in New York City immediately following the collapse of the World Trade Center, she observes:
In Croatia, life in wartime had meant a loss of control, war holding sway over every thought and movement, even while you slept. It did not allow for forgetting. But America’s war did not constrain me, it did not cut off my water or shrink my food supply. There was no threat of takeover with tanks and foot soldiers or cluster bombs, not here. What war meant in America was so incongruous with what happened in Croatia—what must be happening in Afghanistan—that it almost seemed a misuse of the word.
Nović’s writing had the effect of crystallizing in excruciating detail the fact that I personally have no real understanding of war—that my thoughts and ideas about it are, if I’m being generous, a pale imitation of true horror.
On the whole, Girl at War is a strong and affecting read, especially for a debut. I felt that the first section of the novel, comprising Ana’s childhood before the outbreak of war, was significantly more developed than the subsequent sections. Nearly all of the American characters—Ana’s American family, biological sister, and college boyfriend—were lacking in personality, especially as compared to Ana’s Croatian parents and Luka. Similarly, I felt that the third section, in which Ana returns to her homeland and reunites with Luka, ended prematurely. I wanted significantly more page time dedicated to the exploration and development of their (potentially romantic) relationship. But maybe that’s Nović’s point? Life doesn’t always allow you the luxury of time for the development of a relationship. It doesn’t always give you an ending.