BookBrowse Reviews Girl at War by Sara Novic

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Girl at War

by Sara Novic

Girl at War by Sara Novic X
Girl at War by Sara Novic
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    May 2015, 336 pages

    Paperback:
    Mar 2016, 352 pages

    Genres

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
Buy This Book

About this Book

Reviews

BookBrowse:


This pitch-perfect debut novel is an inside look at the Yugoslavian Civil War and its aftermath, from the perspective of a young girl caught up in the fighting.

When we first meet Ana Juric, she is a carefree ten-year-old tomboy, playing soccer and traveling with her parents and baby sister Rahela from their home in the capital city of Zagreb, Croatia, to her godparents' house in a coastal village. It is on one of these vacations that Ana first becomes aware of what is happening in her country. She goes on an errand for her godfather, Petar, and the shopkeeper, goading, asks her if she wants to buy Serbian or Croatian cigarettes. This serves as a perfect metaphor for how people will soon be classified too.

Ana's best friend Luka is Bosnian, a third ethnicity and religious group, but between all these there is only minor linguistic variation. Despite dialects, people can understand each other. All the more ironic, then, that war will soon divide them. Through Ana's first-person narration, we see the state of affairs getting desperate. Serbian President Milosevic is on television talking about ethnic cleansing; ID checks and air raids are commonplace; refugees are flooding in. Childish one-upmanship takes on a macabre cast as Ana's friends compare stories of murders observed.

As if war is not stressful enough, Ana's parents must also contend with Rahela's illness. At an English-speaking clinic across the border in Slovenia, a doctor tells them that Rahela has acute kidney problems and needs to be transported to Children's Hospital in Philadelphia, but because her parents' visas don't come in time, she has to go alone. On the way back from dropping her off in Sarajevo, Ana and her parents are stopped by soldiers. It's a tense, life-or-death situation, and it soon becomes clear that things will never be the same for Ana.

The careful structure of Girl at War keeps it from becoming just another ordinary, chronological war story. The intense climax point when Ana's family is stopped by the soldiers is the end of Part I of the novel, and Part II shoots forward a decade to show Ana's new life in America. She studies literature in Manhattan and goes home on breaks to her and Rahela's adoptive family in Trenton. On this day, though, Ana has an important mission. Sharon Stanfeld, part of the peacekeeping team that rescued her from Croatia, has asked her to recount her war experiences for a UN human rights committee.

Ana has concealed her origins from everyone in New York, including her boyfriend, who thinks she was born in New Jersey. It thus comes as a surprise – to readers, too – that Ana was a child soldier fighting against the Serbs (see Beyond the Book.) Sara Novic's economical yet evocative prose captures Ana's ambivalent feelings about Croatia. She knows that, even in the wake of 9/11, Americans will never understand what it is to have war on the doorstep; "they hadn't smelled the air raid smoke or the scent of singed flesh on their own balconies; they couldn't fathom that such a dangerous place could still harbor all the feelings of home."

Troubled by insomnia and nightmares, Ana decides to book a trip back to Zagreb to face her past. She stays with Luka's family and drives out with him in search of the spot where her life changed. Part III thus starts with another perfect turn: a flashback to ten years ago, when Ana was recruited as a child soldier. Taking Polaroid pictures along the way, Ana rediscovers what she loved about her country; for the first time, her nostalgia is not tinged with sadness.

Novic's recreation of a child's perspective on the horrors of war is pitch-perfect. Ana's viewpoint is realistic and matter-of-fact, without the melodrama an omniscient narrator might inject. In fact, I can barely think of a negative thing to say about this novel. It is concise and well-structured, and it strikes a perfect balance between past and present, tragic and hopeful. War novels can often be magnificent, but at the same time so bleak that it is a struggle to keep reading. That is not the case with Girl at War. Through what Ana remembers but also what she leaves out – what is too painful to write about directly – Novic shows that the effects of war never go away, but people can learn to live with them nonetheless.

Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in June 2015, and has been updated for the April 2016 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Readalikes

Read-alikes Full readalike results are for members only

More books by Sara Novic

If you liked Girl at War, try these:

  • Groundskeeping jacket

    Groundskeeping

    by Lee Cole

    Published 2023

    About this book

    An indelible love story about two very different people navigating the entanglements of class and identity and coming of age in an America coming apart at the seams - this is "an extraordinary debut about the ties that bind families together and tear them apart across generations" (Ann Patchett, best-selling author of The Dutch House).

  • The Winter Soldier jacket

    The Winter Soldier

    by Daniel Mason

    Published 2019

    About this book

    More by this author

    By the international bestselling author of The Piano Tuner, a sweeping and unforgettable love story of a young doctor and nurse at a remote field hospital in the First World War.

Non-members are limited to two results. Become a member
Search read-alikes again
How we choose readalikes

Become a Member

Join BookBrowse today to start discovering exceptional books!

Find out more


Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: Bloodbath Nation
    Bloodbath Nation
    by Paul Auster
    In recent years, Booker Prize­–nominated novelist Paul Auster has increasingly turned to ...
  • Book Jacket: The Nazi Conspiracy
    The Nazi Conspiracy
    by Brad Meltzer, Josh Mensch
    The Nazi Conspiracy by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch was a big hit with our First Impressions readers...
  • Book Jacket
    Yonder
    by Jabari Asim
    The captivating historical novel Yonder turns an intimate lens towards the tragedy and survivorship ...
  • Book Jacket: After Sappho
    After Sappho
    by Selby Wynn Schwartz

    "Someone will remember us, I say, even in another time."
    —Sappho, fragment ...


Book Club Discussion

Book Jacket
The Love of My Life
by Rosie Walsh
An up-all-night love story wrapped in a mystery from the New York Times bestselling author of Ghosted.

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Exiles
    by Jane Harper

    A captivating new mystery from New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Jane Harper.

  • Book Jacket

    Moonrise Over New Jessup
    by Jamila Minnicks

    "Jamila Minnicks pulled me into pages of history I'd never turned before."—Barbara Kingsolver

  • Book Jacket

    Wade in the Water
    by Nyani Nkrumah

    A gripping debut novel of female power and vulnerability, race, and class set in a small Mississippi town in the early 1980s.

Wordplay

Solve this clue:

It's A G T Me

and be entered to win..

Who Said...

What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading, you wish the author that wrote it was a ...

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.