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.
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‘.