Girl at War

Untitled design(1)Ana Jurić is 10 years old when the Balkan war begins. At her age, she is barely aware of the ethnic differences between her country’s inhabitants, and the concept of war means little to her. Even the air raids are mostly fun. But her baby sister Rahela has a kidney disease, and medication is hard to come by. The family is forced to travel to a Sarajevo, from where Rahela is transported to the United States for treatment. On the way back to Zagreb, Ana and her parents are stopped by Chetniks, and Ana’s life changes forever.

Ten years later, Ana has an outwardly stable life in New York. But not even her boyfriend knows that she is from Croatia. She doesn’t tell anyone that she has been invited to the UN to talk about children in combat in the Yugoslavian Civil War. Her report breaks open the barriers she has built to suppress her memories of the time between saying good-bye to Rahela and arriving in the U.S. herself. It becomes clear that she has been unable to process what happened to her. Finally, Ana decides to travel to Croatia as a way to deal with her past. As she gets reacquainted with the people of her childhood and a country that has naturally changed during her absence, her flashbacks explain how Ana made it to the United States.

Girl at War is a well-written book. I thought it perfectly captured the viewpoint of a 10-year-old child. Ana’s childhood in Zagreb truly came to life for me, and later, the seeming lack of emotion successfully mirrors Ana’s inability to move past her harrowing experiences. Part I at times reminded me of The Cellist of Sarajevo, or even the beginning of The People of the Book. The reason for why I couldn’t fully connect with this book is very personal: bewilderment.

I was a few years older than Ana when this civil war started, and I remember how bewildering it was that there was suddenly a war in a country not too far from where I lived, a country that was a popular vacation destination for friends and neighbors. I remember my parents’ lively discussion about the peacekeepers’ role in the conflict and me trying to figure out who was bad and who was good. I couldn’t do it then, and I can’t do it now. It is frustrating to realize that two decades later, I still don’t really know what happened in the Balkans, or why it happened. It is equally frustrating that I let my ignorance influence my reading experience. It was rather unreasonable to expect this book to explain the intricacies of the war when it is not meant to do so. And even though this book didn’t fully work for me, it is still worth reading.

This book was reviewed by Naomi, Shannon, and Helen, among others, but Marina Sofia’s review resonated the most with me.

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16 comments

  1. I liked this book, but I can understand your frustration because I still don’t know much about this war either. I can remember it happening but was too young to understand what was going on. Ana’s story was very moving (particularly the childhood sections) but I was slightly disappointed that it didn’t really add very much to my knowledge of the war and why it happened.

  2. I don’t know a lot about this war at all, so for that reason I think I will eventually be reading this book. Most people seem to love it, but it’s interesting how our personal experiences can influence our reading. Thanks for sharing your own.

    • I think you would really like this book. It is very well-written, and especially the first part is wonderful. For me, there was just a little something missing, but since the reason is so personal, I have no qualms about recommending this book.

  3. I have this on my list of books to read before the end of the year. I enjoyed hearing your personal perspective on this one and I also think it’s only natural that your personal experience will influence how certain books impact you.

    • Unfortunately, it was just not exactly what I had hoped for. But it is a book worth reading, and I hope you get to it before the end of the year. I’d be interested to read what you think of it.

  4. I must admit to knowing very little about this war, only bits and pieces from some of the news reports at the time. Sometimes a piece of thought-provoking fiction can raise more questions than it answers…

    Have you read Natasha’s Story by the war correspondent, Michael Nicholson? I think it formed the basis for Michael Winterbottom’s film, Welcome to Sarajevo. I haven’t read the book and my memories of the film are a little fuzzy now, but they might be of interest to you.

  5. One of the books I reviewed last week was mention I the guardian review of this book Farewell cowboy a similar book a sister returns to find out why her brother killed himself

  6. Thank you for the kind mention. Seems like quite a few of us readers agreed that the chapters describing a child’s view of a senseless war that they get caught up in are the most moving as well as the going back and trying to find some kind of healing/understanding. To be fair, I think that the author and her protagonist are equally bewildered, and the end of the book doesn’t seem to bring a real solution (which it would be unrealistic to hope for, perhaps). Did you see this recent article – it’s about rape victims in Kosovo, but I thought it was relevant nevertheless?
    http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/06/150618141358320.html

    • It was interesting to read that you thought the book was written for an American audience. Along the same lines, I had thought that it could be shelved as Young Adult (which I don’t mean in a negative way!). I had just hoped to learn a little more about the “why” of the war(s). I actually liked the open ending. I thought there was just enough positive to make us hope that Ana will be able to move on.
      Thank you for the link. That article gave me such goosebumps. 20,000 rape victims… that number is unbelievable. To think of all those broken lives.

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