This is a very special book. It’s the kind of book that keeps book-plate going strong, because I love talking about books like this — the kind of book that gets under your skin and stays with you. But I’m not confident that this book is getting the kind of attention it should be getting. Though Gary Shteyngart also writes about going home and duel identity (like in his memoir Little Failure), having his quote on the cover is a very strange choice. Shteyngart and Nović are very different writers and there’s not an immediate crossover between fans of his and this book. And while there are fantastic reviews of Girl at War in The Guardian and The New York Times, the book has yet to receive much attention in Australia. This should change. Australians love stories of identity — being a young country and a population made of migrants, we often seek stories that try to make sense of the feeling of coming from two places at once. Books like Questions of Travel and Americanah both gained great popularity and readers of either of these books will love Girl at War.
Ana Jurić is ten years old and lives with her parents in Zagreb. It’s 1991 and the Serbian-Croatian civil war is about to hit her doorstep. Nović begins Girl at War by setting the scene of an innocent childhood. Of playing in the street, riding bikes through the park, running to the corner store for her parents. But the tension is there from the very first sentence: ‘The war in Zagreb began over a packet of cigarettes.’ The conflict builds, slowly at first, and then the air raid sirens begin. For awhile nothing happens, like the boy crying wolf. But soon this is revealed as a tactic, because just as people learn to distrust the sirens, the bombs begin to hit.
At first, the smell. The earthy scent of burning wood, the chemical stink of melted plastic, the stench of something sour and unfamiliar. Flesh, we’d learn.
Then the smoke: three burgeoning columns above the upper town, broad and dense and dark red.
I grabbed for Luka's hand; a girl beside me clutched a clump of my T-shirt, and the others joined until our whole class had formed a disorderly human chain. It was scarier now to separate than to walk into a city on fire.
Girl at War is told through four parts. Two through ten-year-old Ana in Croatia, and two through Ana at twenty, as a resident of the United States. By splitting these chronologically, the third section (in which the horrific tale of the war in full force is told chillingly through a ten-year-old’s voice) is incredibly powerful. We carry the innocent voice from the first section with us, and we start to understand the impact this part of her life has had on Ana ten year’s later. But we cannot even begin to know what Ana saw, felt and understood, until we hear it in her own words.
As a twenty-year-old, Ana is struggling to find her place in the world. She has not told her boyfriend anything about her past, though her lecturer ‘seemed to know I was not at home in the world’ and through lending her books by Sebald and other authors who use words to understand conflict, she finds a way of connecting. Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is mentioned regularly throughout Girl at War and it’s a wonderful introduction into a collection of works by survivors of the conflict. (Kapla Kassabova reviewing Girl at War in The Guardian mentions Olja Savičević, Selvedin Avdić and Téa Obreht as other recent releases by Nović’s generation who survived the civil war.) But after Ana is asked to give evidence to the United Nations on children at war, she is haunted by graphic nightmares and of un-answered questions, and decides to travel back to Zagreb to attempt to reconnect with her childhood best-friend Luka, to understand who she is, and to make sense of what she left behind. As she says to Luka in an email just before leaving:
Basically, no one here knows who I am, not even me, and I think coming home might set me straight. The word home looked strange on the page, but I left it. I was trying to sound positive, or at least not on the verge of a mental breakdown. I think of you often. Not knowing whether you’re alive drives me crazy some days. So email me, or write me back, or something. And I'll see you soon.
But in Zagreb, things are not easy. Ana has lost her grasp of her native language and must speak in a broken version mixed with English which she calls Cringlish: ‘Croatian sentence structure injected with English stand-ins for the vocabulary I was lacking, then conjugated with Croatian verb endings.’ (Here in Berlin I speak Denglisch — a mix of English and German — so I completely understood Ana’s language frustrations.) Nović also has some beautiful descriptive sentences for her character’s shock at seeing the city for the first time since the war: ‘All these years later and the place had yet to shake its Eastern Bloc aura—the posturing with size and cement, a woman with a brash smear of cherry lipstick she can’t quite pull off.’ It made me think of the contrast between old and new, east and west here too. I cross over the wall every day here — something that my Mum says she finds inconceivable in her lifetime. Because so many of the old buildings were bombed during World War Two, there are a lot of new buildings here, and a constant stream of ongoing renovation and rejuvenation. What was restored or renewed during the wall is marked by contrast — an older, European style in the West, and a more severe, Soviet concrete in the East — and often these binaries sit side by side or across the street from each other. They remind everyone here how haphazard the wall was, and it’s a constant reminder of these dualities that are slowly unifying, and of the trauma this city’s streets have seen.
But coming back to Ana in Croatia, what Nović captures so well is the raw emotion of Ana confronting her past. Her prose is pitch-perfect and she never loses sight of the everyday messiness of feeling pulled between two places at once, of the haunting grief in Zagreb mixed with undeniable feelings of belonging, while at the same time of not feeling at one with the place that caused so much hurt and loss, that she has not called home for ten years. Nović also hits the voice of Ana perfectly — an unmistakable matureness that comes from a childhood lost — with sentences like: ‘I knew in the end the guilt of one side did not prove the innocence of another.’ But this child’s gaze also makes the descriptions of conflict all the more brutal and unapologetic. Nović draws the reader in so that you feel Ana’s pain inside you. It is simply stunning writing.
Girl at War feels like the book that Nović was born to write. As she is quoted in this interview with Vanity Fair, ‘I want people to know that this war happened to people.’ She has said it is based on her family and friend’s experiences, and while she captures the raw emotion of having this story told to her in first person, she manages to detach herself enough that her writing never becomes overwrought or insensitive, and her ability to write with deep emotion yet with technical restraint shows great talent. As Ana says of Sebald: ‘What else is there to write about when you have this?’ For Nović, time will tell what other material will come, but there is no doubt that in Girl at War she does justice to her family’s story. This is an incredible debut, and I cannot wait to see what else may come from Nović in the future.
One of the reasons my partner and I were drawn to Berlin over other cities was a need to lead a slower pace of life for awhile. In Melbourne we are constantly busy — work deadlines intrude on our lives every day, we are always in a rush to do something, be somewhere, to please everyone. It was terrible for our health and we knew we needed to stop and reassess, both as individuals and in our relationship. Being here has helped enormously. Life here is slower and people are on the whole a lot more relaxed. We stop and wait for the lights to turn green before crossing the street — j-walking here is fervently discouraged and also, what’s the rush? In Melbourne I had a single speed bike that I loved, but which would also push me physically as I climbed up the hill to Thornbury, racing myself against other commuters. Here I’ve bought a Dutch-style three speed which forces me to sit upright with better posture and take things slower. It means I take in my surroundings as I ride, rather than rushing to beat a fellow cyclist in a race that doesn’t exist. As we begin to go back to work and build ourselves a daily routine, something that we have been doing that would so rarely happen at home is have breakfast together.
As I was reading Girl at War we had a week or so of very Melbourne-style changeable weather, with grey skies and cool evenings, perfect for starting the day with porridge together. But as I came to prepare this post, summer had returned with full force and we had a string of days in the mid-thirties, which made this Adelaidean very happy indeed. So instead of porridge I turned to this recipe on Apples Under My Bed (I’ve made Heidi’s recipes before - her Stovetop Granola here, and her Nut, Seed and Oat Loaf here). There’s a wonderful scene in Girl at War where Ana and Luka are eating granola together by the side of the road so making muesli that my partner and I ate together on a slow Friday morning felt perfect. I chose not to use any honey in the mixture and it was perfectly sweet enough. I also omitted the chia seeds because we didn’t have any in the house and the banana and oats still left it lovely and creamy. Left overnight in the fridge it made for a cooling yet satisfying breakfast, like a less tart bircher muesli. We topped ours with vanilla quark (a mix of cream cheese and yoghurt that’s very common here), seeds and some fresh red currants. The tart red currants cut through the richness of the dairy and give little bursts of flavour, but you could also use frozen raspberries or whatever fresh fruit you like. For Heidi, bananas feel like childhood. After reading of Ana’s journey back to her childhood home, it felt like the perfect mix of comfort food and nostalgia.
In attempting to understand this piece of history that I see every day, I appreciated this summary in The Independent, posted last year on the eve of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the wall. And in this photo, you can see what the wall looks like today - a winding set of cobblestones to mark where the wall stood - which I ride across every day.