Review: Girl at War

Posted May 23, 2015

Review: Girl at War Girl at War by Sara Novic
Published by Little Brown UK on May 2015
Genres: Historical Fiction, YA
Source: Competition Prize

Zagreb, summer of 1991. Ten-year-old Ana Juric is a carefree tomboy who runs the streets of Croatia’s capital with her best friend, Luka, takes care of her baby sister, Rahela, and idolizes her father. But as civil war breaks out across Yugoslavia, soccer games and school lessons are supplanted by sniper fire and air raid drills. When tragedy suddenly strikes, Ana is lost to a world of guerilla warfare and child soldiers; a daring escape plan to America becomes her only chance for survival.

Ten years later Ana is a college student in New York. She’s been hiding her past from her boyfriend, her friends, and most especially herself. Haunted by the events that forever changed her family, she returns alone to Croatia, where she must rediscover the place that was once her home and search for the ghosts of those she’s lost. With generosity, intelligence, and sheer storytelling talent, Sara Nović’s first novel confronts the enduring impact of war, and the enduring bonds of country and friendship.


I was lucky enough to win a limited edition, numbered hardback proof of Girl at War from @LittleBrownUK on Twitter. To win you had to tell them why you wanted to read this book. For me, the answer was quite straight forward.

Girl at War is the story of a ten year old girl, Ana. She’s a tomboy who lives in Zagreb at the time of the Yugoslavian Civil War. Personally, I wanted to read this novel because at that same time as Ana was growing up in a warzone, I was a carefree tomboy living in Scotland. I remember seeing reports on this war on the television, but didn’t ever really have any concept of what was going on. Hence, the reason I wanted to read this novel.

The story is split into four sections. We begin by meeting Ana, her parents and her baby sister, living in a flat in Zagreb. It’s the summer holidays, but for the first time the family aren’t going to the sea; it’s too dangerous to travel. So Ana is passing her holidays with her best friend Luka, cycling and playing football, doing the kind of things that a ten year old should be allowed to do.

As refugees flock to the city and the airstrikes begin, we see the war from the eyes of a child. Ana soon realises that it now seems to matter if you are a Croat or a Serb, that having a beard is associated with the war, and that child or not, this war is going to affect everyone.

Nović uses the four sections of the book to traverse time. In doing so we follow Ana’s life as a child and the devastating things that happen to her during the war. We also see the college student Ana who lives in the US and has kept her past a secret from her peers, but who struggles every day with the events she has seen and the things she has had to do.

The novel has been described as “part war saga, part coming of age tale, part story of love and friendship” and I can think of no better way to describe it. Nović cleverly entwines the story of Ana the child and Ana the young adult. We see Ana the child soldier, and then Ana the college student who cannot sleep for nightmares of her past. Rather than continuing to hide her past, Ana decides to tackle it straight on and returns to Croatia. What follows is a beautiful story of friendship, as well as Ana’s rediscovery of her native culture.

This is a powerful, beautiful read. Nović’s storytelling is vivid, clever and inspiring. Though this may be a fictional piece of writing, there are so many truths in it. Truths that as a 10 year old watching the television I had no idea about. Truths that as a 31 year old I had very little knowledge of. Truths that deserve to be told, and Nović does this beautifully.

This is a stunning debut novel. I highly recommend it!