LONGLISTED FOR THE BAILEYS WOMEN’S PRIZE FOR FICTION 2016
Growing up in Zagreb in the summer of 1991, 10-year-old Ana Juric is a carefree tomboy; she runs the streets with her best friend, Luka, helps take care of her baby sister, Rahela, and idolizes her father. But when civil war breaks out across Yugoslavia, football games and school lessons are supplanted by sniper fire and air raid drills.
The brutal ethnic cleansing of Croats and Bosnians tragically changes Ana’s life, and she is lost to a world of genocide and child soldiers; a daring escape plan to America becomes her only chance for survival. Ten years later she returns to Croatia, a young woman struggling to belong to either country, forced to confront the trauma of her past and rediscover the place that was once her home.
Paperback due out 24th March
Girl at War tells the story of Croatian Ana Juric and her family during the Yugoslavian civil war. While the story is fictional, sadly it could easily and may well be someone’s reality.
The first part introduces Ana and her family – mum, dad and ill sister Rahela, her godparents Petar and Marina, and her best friend Luka. Ana is only 10 years old, but her life is about to change beyond all recognition. Already people are starting to be judged by the way they pronounce a word, the brand of cigarette they smoke or the number of kisses they offer when they greet someone. In short suddenly it matters whether you are Serbian or Croatian, no matter that you’ve been neighbours or work colleagues for years. Ana has to grow up quickly, but no-one could anticipate what fate held in store.
Part two sees Ana at 20, safe and living in America. She is called to give evidence at the UN as a war survivor, and as a result much of what she’s tried to forget starts to re-surface. The secrets and lies that have formed her life start to unravel, leading her to return to Croatia to find her roots and try to lay the ghosts to rest.
Despite obviously dealing with the horrors and reality of war, it does so without being too graphic. By making Ana the narrator we are seeing things through a child’s eyes – she observes and she comments – we make the judgements. Also Ana is a lovely girl, innocent and fun loving with a happy family and the security of her best friend Luka. Despite the war, they are resilient and to a degree unaware of what might befall them. Without revealing spoilers it is difficult to say much more, other than when we meet the older Ana she is clearly scarred by her experiences, as many genocide survivors are.
Having recently visited Vietnam and Cambodia, I have heard first hand and witnessed the effects of civil war and genocide in those countries. Girl at War echoes those stories of families torn apart, villages destroyed and atrocities committed. Ana, while Croatian, could equally well have been Cambodian, or Jewish or Syrian. For if history teaches us nothing else, it appears that nations never learn the lessons of the past. However maybe just maybe if writers like Sara Novic can remind us that we are all the same under the skin, with similar hopes and dreams, and that invariably in war, it is the innocent who pay the biggest price, one day it might start to make a difference. This is a book I am happy to recommend, to make you think, not only about man’s inhumanity to man, but also about those who seek to make positive contributions and offer hope in what can seem a hopeless situation.
I received an ARC via NetGalley in return for an honest review.
NB. Star rating difference between review and banner is due to fact that 5 star is based on my NetGalley rating for which 5 star means strongly recommended.