Girl at War, Sara Novic’s first novel, tells a compelling and horrific war story. Ana Juric, the novel’s heroine and narrator, is an NYU student who experienced extreme violence as a young girl in Croatia in the early 1990’s. Girl at War‘s narrative goes back and forth between Ana’s childhood in Croatia and the present day. These transitions build the drama and thankfully never leave the reader in doubt as to where the story is. Novic is an accomplished, confident writer who feels no need to confuse the reader as to time and place. Her narrative is clear and reveals that Ana remembers her past only too well. She survived her childhood trauma and knows she was lucky to land on her feet and be raised in comfortable middle class surroundings outside Philadelphia. Nonetheless, as a middle class student at NYU, Ana realizes that she isn’t “over” her past and that pretending it didn’t happen isn’t working. She abruptly decides she can’t avoid her past any longer and that she needs to go back and confront it. This isn’t one of those books where a person has led a long and tortured life and decides on their death bed to deal with old ghosts. On the contrary, Ana is young, and once she recognizes that she can’t simply continue her denial, she bravely acts. Ana’s willingness to take action and save herself is heroic and inspiring. This is a harrowing story, but Ana’s youth seems to be on her side and encourages the hope that she will find some peace and happiness.
The book’s Croatia settings and characters, both during and after the conflict, are remarkable. Reading the newspapers and various non-fiction accounts simply didn’t inform me the way this clear-eyed novel did. Girl at War is a great book and an important contribution to the the literature of war. It would also make a heck of a movie.