Ana is an adolescent girl growing up in the city of Zagreb during a time of tumultuous change. One day the distinction between being Serbian and Croatian makes a big difference although “In school we’d been taught to ignore distinguishing ethnic factors, though it was easy enough to discern someone’s ancestry by their last name.” Narrating the story in her own voice she witnesses a growing edginess as neighbours start to turn on neighbours and friends upon friends. She hears the opinions about certain ethnicities and political allegiances when she goes to shops or school or watches television. For Ana and her close friend Luka, such distinctions are perplexing and absurd however the effects become immediately apparent when food/supply shortages occur and the air raids begin. She will only know in retrospect that she lived through the Croatian War of Independence.
Perhaps Ana would have lived through the war without feeling its effects so intensely if her parents were able to remain in Zagreb. As children do, Ana and her friends adjust to living in a time of war. They play fight amidst the signs of war and shelters which spring up all over the city. Of course war is made into a game by children who experience it because otherwise they would feel nothing but terrified the entire time. Although she adapts she is conscious this isn’t a standard childhood: “I thought of our war games and generator bike fights and wondered if the things I’d come to consider ordinary were not so normal after all.” She is aware that real danger exists, but she convinces herself it’s something she won’t experience: “I allowed myself into the fantasy I recognized as such even while my mind was still spinning it – that there in the flat, with my family, I was safe.” But Ana’s baby sister Rahela is seriously ill with a kidney problem. The limited medical resources left in Croatia can’t help her so the family must take her further afield and over borders where they run into trouble. Ana is forced into an entirely different kind of life which leaves her damaged and struggling to understand who she is now. After eventually becoming settled in America, Ana travels back to her native country to be able to consciously cope with her past and form a stronger sense of identity.
One of the most touching things in this moving and powerful novel are the ways in which language and literature play an essential part in Ana’s connection with her past. She reads books about war and the history of her country by writers such as W.G. Sebald and Rebecca West especially because “Reading was one of the only ways in which I allowed myself to think about the continent and country I’d left behind.” Dealing with her own experiences and past was too direct, but books give her a framework within which she can better understand how her own sense of national identity connects to the history of her people and individuals who have survived war. She learns that language itself is an essential part of that identity. She observes: “I used to think all languages were ciphers, that once you learned another’s alphabet you could convert foreign words back into your own, something recognizable. But the blood formed a pattern like a map to comprehension and I understood the differences all at once. I understood how one family could end up in the ground and another could be allowed to continue on its way, that the distinction between Serbs and Croats was much vaster than ways of writing letters.”
Partway through this novel I grew worried that it might be a book where the author is using a young female victim as a means of exploring a bleak difficult war history that most people don’t want to approach in raw facts. In other words, I thought it might be a case where the story is there to serve the author’s intention rather than the author being there to honour the story. But “Girl at War” proves itself to be a robust, complex novel which thoroughly immerses you in Ana’s journey. I grew to empathize and care for her struggle not just because of the circumstances she lived through, but the inner-conflicts she strives to overcome. Something which is revelatory and startling about this novel is the way in which Ana herself is not just a victim. Amidst her struggles in the war-torn countryside of Croatia she becomes a soldier. The stark reality of this is emphasized in how her experience isn’t symbolic: “When I thought of my own weapon I remembered not its existential power but its weight, heavy against my slight frame.” Such a visceral understanding of war continues throughout the book; the grander question of meaning only comes with her thoughtful reflections when she revisits her past.
The Yugoslavian civil war is a difficult subject to approach in fiction because it took place in parts and lasted for such a long time. “Girl at War” gives you a heartfelt, cleverly-written portrayal of one girl’s experience which shows that although there are horrendous, unquestionable crimes which occur in a layered, complex war such as this “in the end the guilt of one side did not prove the innocence of the other.” When it comes to the personal level survival is the imperative rather than allegiance or morality. Only in the aftermath of her experiences can Ana begin to make sense of what living through war has meant to her own notions of self. It’s a novel which transcends its circumstances to tell a story that has universal meaning.