Girl at War, by Sara Novic

Girl at War, by Sara Novic

The war in Zagreb began over a pack of cigarettes

So begins Girl at War, Sara Nović’s debut novel about Ana, the ‘girl’ of the title. It’s Ana’s tenth birthday and, during the family celebration dinner, her godfather has sent her out to the nearby kiosk to buy him cigarettes. It’s a common game: he times how long it takes her to run to the corner shop and, if she beats her record, she gets to keep some of the change. This time, though, she’s caught out by the clerk’s question. He wants to know if she’s buying Serbian or Croatian cigarettes. She just knows they’re the ones in the gold wrapper. The first half of the novel takes us through the outbreak of war and follows life in Zagreb as air raids begin and tensions rise. Ana’s baby sister, Rahela, is ill; as her condition worsens, a medical charity working out of Slovenia agrees to fly her to America. It’s as the family try to return to Croatia after leaving Rahela with the MediMission doctors that events spiral.

The second half shifts to America, where Ana, now twenty, is a university student in New York. She’s been asked to give a talk at the UN about her experience of combat as a child during the Yugoslavian Civil War. Her history during that time is not something she’s shared with anyone since coming to the US, not even her boyfriend. The events of 9/11, some six months before this part of the novel begins, have already shaken her carapace, and the speech at the UN continues the process. Ana needs to go back, to find out what has happened to her best friend Lukas, to her godfather, to Zagreb and to her own younger self.

Nović creates a beautiful portrait of a family, and of a whole way of life, shattered by violence and the irrationality of partisan fervour. The moments of sheer horror are handled with delicacy, if that makes sense: the end of the first half in particular is raw and shocking, but this is primarily a story of growth and rebuilding, and we are not led too far into the darkness. I enjoyed every moment.


  1. Louise Swingler
    18 Apr 2016

    Thanks, Sarah, an intriguing review – it made me want to read this. I suppose I should NOT thank you, really, for increasing the height of my ‘to read’ pile still further! But you are forgiven, rest assured …

    • Sarah
      18 Apr 2016

      Ha, it’s perennial problem, isn’t it?!

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