Girl at War by Sara Novic review: notes from a phony war-torn childhood
This clumsy debut novel never for a moment convinces in its setting, characters or conflict, says Eileen Battersby
Photograph: Getty Images
Girl at War
Ana, the narrator of this oddly detached debut novel, is two people. There is the 10-year-old tomboy who plays football and dashes about Zagreb until life there changes. And then there is the introverted, sleepless college girl living in New York, terrified of nightmares and, a decade on, wondering about her past.
Neither of the personas proves that memorable, although the younger one is far more sympathetic than the caustic grown woman who keeps everyone she meets, including the reader, at arm’s length.
Girl at War draws loosely and unconvincingly on the war in Croatia, which began in 1991 following the break-up of Yugoslavia. If ever a novel needed to be written in the third person, it is this one – if only to convey a plausible sense of trauma and reduce the amount of clumsily reported conversations.
Dialogue is not a strong point. There is a staccato quality about the content as well as the prose; the narrative is both under- and over-written; no mean feat and one that makes it impossible to engage with the story.
The opening section of the book is the best, and the passage quoted on the back jacket is taken from the most dramatic sequence. But Sara Novic has a flat prose style. Her novel was written while she was completing a creative writing course at Columbia University, and it reads as an assignment. It is laboured and predictable, and even Novic’s decision to intersperse the narrative with an unambitious flash-forward and flashback technique does not create any mystery – the pieces have already fallen into place long before she offers them.
Of course, the war is what gives the novel its relevance, yet many readers will be bewildered by the author’s apparent confusion of Croatia with Bosnia. The war-torn version of Zagreb that appears here never existed; Zagreb was far away from the frontlines and was not subjected to food rationing and air raids (although in the early months air raid sirens did sound). There was no aerial bombardment in Zagreb.
In fact, from 1992 there was little bombing even in neighbouring Bosnia because of a UN Security Council resolution prohibiting unauthorised military flights over Bosnian air space. Daily life in Zagreb was not disrupted by sniper fire; nor were there water shortages or ongoing power cuts. War was concentrated along Croatia’s eastern borders with Serbia and Bosnia.
Hazy historyNovic, who was five when the war broke out, is referred to as having lived in the US and Croatia. Perhaps this explains why the sense of Croatia is so hazy and described through adult eyes. Also irritatingly obvious is her habit of providing extraneous details without ever explaining anything.
It does not matter if a character has a line of acne along his chin; it would be more interesting to find out how an impoverished family such as Ana’s succeeded in getting a seriously ill child – Ana’s little sister – alone to the US for urgent treatment courtesy of an unspecified medical program.
But then, if the writing were stronger and less inclined to clunky phrasing, such as “Not wanting to wake Brian, I compelled myself to stillness for a minute or two, tried to match the rise and fall of my chest with his” or “I snuck a peek down at the Converse high-tops I’d pulled on in a last-minute fit of groggy defiance”, one might not be so demanding of clarity.
Early in the narrative, Ana is still recalling events through a child’s viewpoint. She adopts the tone of a newsreader:
“As a side effect of modern warfare, we had the peculiar privilege of watching the destruction of our country on television. There were only two channels, and with tank and trench battles happening across the eastern counties and JNA ground troops within a hundred kilometres of Zagreb, both were devoted to public service announcements, news reports, or political satire, a burgeoning genre now that the secret police were no longer a concern. The anxiety that arose from being away from the television, the radio, our friends’ latest updates, from not knowing, panged our stomachs like a physical hunger.”
“Panged our stomachs” is jarringly inelegant, while the language used certainly does not ring true coming from the memories of a 10-year-old.
On the way back home from leaving the little girl with the unspecified medical experts, the family is stopped at a checkpoint. A massacre follows and the action moves on 10 years to Ana, now living as an American in the US, wary of discussing her past.
Now, three years into her college course, Ana is about to address some UN delegates. It is obvious that the woman she meets must have had something to do with getting her into the US. Their exchanges are impersonal. But then Ana is remote and unforgiving; she appears to see offence in the most simple gesture.
Ana’s contact hands her a cup and a pastry: “I . . . took a swig of the coffee that turned out to be hot chocolate. I choked it down; I usually took my coffee black. The sweetness stuck in my mouth, and it dawned on me that, for Sharon, I would always be 10 years old.” This statement is delivered as if it were hugely important.
Even more disconcerting is the next revelation: “In America I’d learned quickly what it was okay to talk about and what I should keep to myself. ‘It’s terrible what happened there’, people would say when I let slip my home country and explained that it was the next one to Bosnia. They’d heard about Bosnia; the Olympics had been there in ’84.”
Actually, as the 1984 Olympics were held in Los Angeles, it is far more likely that Americans would have been more aware of the Summer Games than the smaller Winter ones, which were held in Sarajevo.
Ana continues: “In the beginning, adults operating somewhere between concern and nosiness, had asked questions about the war, and I spoke truthfully about the things I’d seen . . .They’d offer their condolences, as they’d been taught.”
Her contempt for Americans in general, not least her hapless foster mother, only serves to further alienate the reader. She reserves actual dislike for the improbable Sharon. After lunch, they part as a cab pulls over and Sharon sets off. “I watched her into the cab, but she was typing something on her Blackberry and didn’t look up again.”
Return homeFortified by Rebecca West’s classic study Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), Ana breaks up with her boyfriend and is at last prepared to return home to a country she no longer knows. Yet she has no difficulty in immediately teaming up with her old pal Luka, with whom she has had no contact.
They are both 10 years older and it is unlikely that Luka and his father would walk around at home in their underpants in front of any young woman, never mind a childhood friend who has reappeared after a decade away. Nor is it likely that Ana would recall a woman from her past, snapping at the height of the war, 10 years earlier, “Petar, for chrissakes just tell her already.”
Girl at War is a novel, not a history, but it does profess to be about Croatia. Any foreign correspondent will pick factual holes, but the reader needs to believe. I couldn’t penetrate the sense of random anecdote. Ironically, Novic published a far more credible short piece (Notes From a War-Interrupted Childhood) in 2013, which, though based on similar material, has far more urgency. Non-Croatian Aminatta Forna’s recently Impac-longlisted The Hired Man (2013) conveys a better sense of Croatia.
There are so many impressive works coming from Croatian writers in translation that are stylistically superior, such as Olja Savicevic’s recently published Farewell, Cowboy; S. – a Novel About the Balkans by Salvenka Drakulic, about a Bosnian woman in the rape camps; and Selvedin Avdic’s Seven Terrors, which wittily and surrealistically explores the postwar communal trauma of Bosnia.
Most of all, Novic lacks the immediacy, authenticity and rich multicultural nuances that make the finest of the writers of Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia so exciting.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent