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.