Did I not want this story to end due to Sara Novic's literary architecture? Or was it my investment in a character so evolved that I didn't want to let her go?
Girl at WarPublisher: Penguin
Length: 336 pages
Author: Sara Novic
Publication date: 2015-05
Girl at War is a story that needed to be told. Countless novels have taken on the varying narratives of notorious wars, but Sara Novic’s gut wrenching debut is a testament to why these reminders are so very important.
Told through the experience of ten-year-old, Ana, a Croatian girl growing up in Yugoslavia, Novic subtly brings light to a young war many Americans have no real understanding of or knowledge about. It’s difficult to distinguish what’s more impressive, that this is Sara Novic’s first novel or that she wrote it as a deaf author and created a dialogue that rivals seasoned authors.
While the plot is almost predictable at times (isn't that the way war is?), it's the attachment to Ana’s emotional recovery that creates a fierce investment in her story. While Novic is Croatian-American, there are no heavy politics; she doesn’t attach blame, only the very immediate feeling of confusion and survival. She forces a look at dogmatic patriotism, “The war in Zagreb started over a pack of cigarettes.” In the introduction, Ana goes to purchase a pack of cigarettes and is asked which pack she’d prefer, Serbian or Croatian, but she doesn’t know the right answer. This childlike confusion is a commentary on the futility of war, and foreshadows how much pain would follow her over that simple division.
Novic does an astounding job creating a character that is easy to love, a tomboy with compassion beyond her years. The first part of the story follows her community’s adjustment to the impeding war, her heartbreaking bond with her father and the loss of her innocence. Her family’s protection of her young mind during wartime is something ornate; comparable to Robert Benigni’s lauded protection of his son’s innocence in the film Life is Beautiful. Without giving too much away, there's a dialogue of devout parental love that she paints vividly; in only a few short phrases, it's one of the most haunting death scenes I’ve ever read.
Girl at War is also a commentary about what keeps the human spirit moving when it's been scraped of all joy. Throughout the book, she shares an impenetrable bond with Luka, her childhood friend and neighbor, a kinship that helps to suture their spirits. It’s a pure bond that could have easily taken the route of the romantic narrative further into the story, but Novic doesn’t take the easy tug-at-the-heartstrings route, even when the reader is longing for it. Instead, she keeps the sanctity of simple friendship intact and honored.
After losing touch with nearly everyone she loved, she's smuggled into America -- by people who risk their lives to return her to safety along the way -- to rejoin her infant sister. Fast-forward ten years, a student at The New School in New York, she realizes she's suffocating from her story and her struggle has left her feeling disconnected, anxious and alone. It's time for her to return home to face her identity, to face her fellow survivors.
Novic creates a palpable anxiety about this return, reuniting with Luka she speaks in almost a poetic prose, “Even I could see that he’d lost weight and his smile didn’t match his eyes.” As Ana and Luka return to the places that rip the scabs off her aching memory, Novic creates a sense of poetic grace surrounding their united return, “Through the gash in the roof we could see the sky, and we stretched our arms upward, tracing constellations. It calmed me, just like it had when we were small and hungry and scared of dying.”
The stories that stay with us evoke a certain panic as the pages at our right hand dwindles. Honoring her history and the reader, it’s hard to tell if the craving of this book’s continuance is unfinished business by Novic as the literary architect, or the crushing finalé of a character so evolved it becomes hard to let her go.