Sara Novic: Girl at War

GirlatWarTBR2 from #TBR20

This debut novel is really three distinct stories meshed into one: a child’s eye view of the war in Croatia, the displacement that comes from being adopted and growing up in the US (and having to hide one’s heritage for fear you won’t be understood or accepted), then finally returning to your home country after a traumatic period in its history, trying to reconnect with friends and family and make your peace with your past.

The problem is that the book addresses predominantly an American audience who may be less familiar with the war in Yugoslavia – or perhaps a younger generation who has forgotten about the war. (The author herself was very small when those events were happening, so may not have much personal recollection of them, although she has interviewed friends and family to ask about their own experiences.) So there is perhaps more telling than is strictly necessary.

For those of us of a certain age living close-by to the former Yugoslav republic, the trauma of a war that we had believed was impossible in modern-day Europe is still sufficiently fresh. We’ve all seen friends and their families torn apart and made homeless by this war, the bullet-riddled buildings, the often toothless War Tribunal at The Hague, the deep scars of distrust that will take a few generations to recover from… and all of these are hinted at in this book.

The story is, of course, interesting, often harrowing and almost unbelievable. The observations of people’s reactions in Croatia and outside it, the contrasts between cultures and countries, the dilemmas of international adoption are spot on. The novel may not be wildly original in format or style, but it’s a good read, emotionally wrenching and very informative, with not a hint of a dry lecture.

The recreation of childhood in Zagreb and the seaside in the summer is the most successful part to my mind. This is when the book feels less ‘educational’ and more evocative. It’s mourning a lost way of life, a loss of childhood innocence, the loss of the innocence of a nation… Think Le Grand Meaulnes with a Croatian accent.  The encroaching war and its horrors are things that the adults still try to protect the children from, but they end up incorporating their increasingly dire reality into their games.

By the end of the week we’d absorbed the sandbags into our playscape. War quickly became our favourite game and soon we had given up the park altogether. If we could convince enough people to be Serbs we’d play teams… which meant you only got one life, and when you died you had to stay dead… Other times, we played every-man-for-himself war, in which you got three lives and everyone got to kill everybody else indiscriminately. In both versions, the idea was to kill a person by shooting him with your imaginary gun… There were also two subcontests within each game. One was who could make the most realistic machine-gun sound effects; top players could distinguish between a Thompson, a Kalashnikov, and a Zbrojovka…. The second was who could act out the best death.

Author picture from LA Review of Books.

It’s perhaps unfair to compare this passage, written with a detachment and humour that belies its underlying horror, with ‘Tigermilk’, a story of deprived childhood in present-day Berlin. This book felt much more genuine and shocking, without deliberately trying to shock.

Sara Novic is not just a very promising young writer, she is also a deaf writer. Although her hearing loss was gradual, she has some very interesting things to say in this Guardian article about how to feel language in your head and on paper when you cannot actually hear it. To get a feel for Sara’s clear and distinctive writing voice, as well as her unique experiences as a child between cultures, here is a piece by her entitled ‘Notes on a War-Torn Childhood‘.

19 thoughts on “Sara Novic: Girl at War”

  1. I really enjoyed this book too . I often find child narrators a bit grating but she handled it v well ….and seeing the madness through the eyes of a child was s v effective way of recounting that madness.

    I read Elvira Dones book about the kosovan war immediately afterwards and it was interesting to contrast the two ….same madness, different country .

    1. The weakest part of the book to my mind was the middle, the part that takes place the US. Although I enjoyed the cultural contrasts, it felt a bit too shrill and accusatory about her host family and country, although she had been the one unable to discuss her past.

  2. What a helpful frank review Marina and very interesting how you perceive her key audience is the US and how that affects the story. Great links too… it’s in my shopping list.

    1. Pleased to be of help – and sorry to add to your shopping list! I’d love to see if the book has a different reception in Europe than in the US and how the author feels the audience responds in different parts of the world.

      1. Yes, absolutely… It’s also making me consider how my WIP may be perceived differently – if/when it is ever completed – and pondering if I need to consider the audience more or less! My gut reaction is write what I want to write/hear but are others influenced more by a market… does that make sense?

        1. Absolutely! I’m struggling with that too. Sometimes I think I have a talent for over-complicating things (and trying to fit too much in, typical debut author mistake).

  3. Oh that sounds exactly the same… Well said I’m still very much at the drawing board stage!

  4. Thanks for this very thoughtful review, Marina. I had thought this book might have more resonance for you than for those of us watching from further afield. I still remember the shock of a war so close to the EU, watching people on TV under sniper fire in Sarajevo running down the street, dressed just like us, hoping to find bread to buy. I think many here in the UK have forgotten than the EU was founded in an attempt to prevent another European conflict after the Second World War, and in that it’s been a great success.

    1. I’ve read several books set during that period and in various parts of the former Yugoslavia, so in that respect it was perhaps not quite ‘fresh’ or original. But there’s always room for a new pair of eyes and I do think Novic has a great feel for language.

  5. It sounds like this one has a lot of power in its own way, Marina Sofia. The contrast between that childish innocence and the encroaching war sounds particularly effective. My guess is that experience resonates with many who’ve grown up in a war-torn area. I’m glad that, for the most part, you found it a strong reading experience.

  6. Thank you Marina, your review gives those of us who haven’t read the book some real insight into the bits that worked, as well as those that didn’t quite meet the expectations. I haven’t read much about this period and so maybe the telling would work for me.

    1. Oh, with great pleasure, as it’s a subject I’ve been in equal measure horrified and fascinated by. I assume you mean all of the Yugoslav war, not just Serbia vs. Croatia (so including Bosnia)?
      Steven Galloway: The Cellist of Sarajevo (fiction)
      Atka Reid: Goodbye Sarajevo (memoir)
      Anna Lazarevska: Death in the Museum of Modern Art (a short story collection). I reviewed it here:
      Slavenka Drakulic: They Would Never Hurt a Fly (about the war criminals in The Hague)
      Dubravka Ugrešić: The Museum of Unconditional Surrender (about life in exile, remembrance of things past)

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