Saturday 17 February 2018

Girl in a league of her own

Conflict: A Croatian National Guardsman comforts an old woman on September 26, 1991, outside her home which was destroyed in an air raid during the night by Yugoslav forces.
Conflict: A Croatian National Guardsman comforts an old woman on September 26, 1991, outside her home which was destroyed in an air raid during the night by Yugoslav forces.
Girl at War by Sara Novic

Tanya Sweeney

Reliving the story of war from the simple vantage point of a youngster is a storytelling device done time and time again, and with good reason. Little else manages to hammer home the indecency and brutality of war quite like a childhood revoked.

Yet for a writer, mastering that high-wire feat between perfecting the innocent, uninformed perspective of a child and sufficiently conveying the brevity of conflict is a challenge. Some, like John Boyne or Vera Leinvebers, do it with aplomb, deploying a perfect economy of prose. There is something about a child's loss - of a toy, of innocence, of the right to be petulant, of simple routine - that, done the right way, positively sears. It's a risky and audacious enterprise for a new writer, but Sara Novic rises to the challenge beautifully.

Novic's 10-year-old heroine Ana is ripped from her tomboyish childhood in 1990s Zagreb. As most kids very well might, she watches Slobodan Milosevic on TV and laughs at his cartoonish appearance.

"Milosevic had big ears and a fat red face, jowls sagging like a dejected bulldog," she writes. But it's not long before her friends start to peel away, leaving under cover of night to avoid air raids. More than anything, Ana is perturbed that she has lost a good goalie. And because her mother tells her that the men fighting with guns and planes on TV are protecting Croatia, she feels safe. Because at 10 years old, a mother's word trumps even the most malevolent-seeming of terrors.

Predictably, the idyll is short-lived as Ana, and her Bosnian best friend Luka, are plunged into a world of trampled forests, child soldiers and turmoil. Much like Anne Frank did, Ana starts to come of age amid warfare, attempting to navigate womanhood and this chaotic new world order as both landscapes shift under her feet.

As a university student 10 years later in New York, Ana hasn't yet learned to live with the trauma of the past, and carries it around in secret; ashamed and tortured by what she has seen and how she has had to survive.

She returns home to Croatia to reconcile herself with the fierce horrors of her past, kick-starting a journey that is charged, but never mawkish. It's no mean feat to capture the boiling vividness of war without resorting to weepy sentimentality. Ana is clearly an agonised woman, but her lack of self pity is astonishing. She also finds herself navigating terrorism in New York on September 11, 2001, a neat narrative trick.

Note-perfect and ambitious in scope, Girl at War might call to mind the work of Téa Obreht, a young Yugoslav-born writer also now living in New York. Come to think of it, there has been a spate of impressive recent titles of a similar flavour (whether set in the Balkans or involving Balkan characters); among them Steven Galloway's The Cellist of Sarajevo and Haley Tanner's Vaclav & Lena.

Girl at War may have sprung from a similar topography, but make no mistake, at once visceral, tender and affecting, Novic and her debut are sitting pretty in a league of their own.


Girl at War

Sara Novic

Little & Brown, pbk, 318 pages, €22.50

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