I loved the way the story was stacked to build suspense. It didn’t feel like you were waiting for a “reveal”, but more just waiting to have the final piece of a puzzle, especially after the shock of Ana’s parents being killed so early. I felt like that was kind of risky-that seems like a scene you would get at the end of most books-but it totally worked in building tension for me.
Her parents being killed—being murdered—so early in the book was a huge clue that this wasn’t going to be about the actual events that took place. It put the focus on the impact of those events.
I was shocked by those murders. It was great timing though, I loved the construction. The book wasn’t going to lead up to some awful crescendo, it was about what happens to you after the most awful thing.
I appreciated that aspect, but it also worked against the book for me. I’ve read many powerful war novels from a child’s perspective (The Book of Aron, Above the East China Sea, In the Shadow of the Banyan) and in those books there was an immersion in the war experience that I did not get here. Ana seeing her parents be shot was horrific to read but she was sent to America less than a year later and had a seemingly normal childhood. These other stories stuck with me but Girl at War did not.
What about Ana’s time as a child soldier after she saw her parents murdered? The book gives us the respite of seeing her life in America and knowing she’s safe before revealing what it was like for her, but I’m not sure we can say her experience was easier because it was shorter. I can see what you mean about the intensity, but in this case it was something I appreciated. Like Jen said, we don’t get awful scene after awful scene after awful scene, but we see the impact of war—in all of the little subtle ways it can come back to haunt someone, which is something that’s a little less common.
Understood and I am not trying to say that only protracted suffering makes a book worthy. Ana suffered but Nović did not impart the experience in a way that resonated. As for being a child soldier, again, it was such a brief experience in her life and Nović imparted it with ambiguity—did she kill someone or not?—and then whisked her off to America. How exposed was she? I get that being a soldier at age 10 is not normal but I can only reiterate that in the scope of books of this type, this one did not get the individual experience across to me.
I loved that this concentrated on the Yugoslavian civil war—I think it’s so overlooked in American World History books that it leaves a huge gap in our understanding.
I agree. I couldn’t stop thinking about (and feeling shocked by) how little I knew about this. It was going on while I was in high school, yet I feel like I learned nothing beyond “Yugoslavia is in the middle of a civil war.”
I remember hearing about it after the fact, as a reference point in the Clinton presidency. And, honestly, I had no idea what it was about. Even reading this novel now I found it very difficult to keep the factions straight. In that way, I identified with Ana as she kept having to ask her father who was who. This is where the book succeeded for me—in showing how it was so hard to pinpoint the villains, there were atrocities on all sides. As Ana says,
“I had wanted him to be outraged , too, but I knew in the end the guilt of one side did not prove the innocence of the other.”
I didn’t really learn about it until college because I was taking a very focused political science course with a professor from Serbia, but I doubt I would have seen it in a survey class. Even then I had to go back and Google rabbit hole myself while reading.
This was one of the first world events that I paid attention to. I was in high school and was just starting to notice that there was a world outside of my head. The sad thing is that it took this book to make me think about it again. People should read this, if for no other reason than to learn and remember.
“What war meant in America was so incongruous with what had happened in Croatia—what must have been happening in Afghanistan—that it almost seemed a misuse of the word.”
This quote (referring to 9/11) really jumped out at me because right there, so bluntly stated, our privilege as Americans is brought to light. Is this a fair statement? Does it affect how much or how little Americans care about the atrocities going on in other parts of the world?
That’s a great point. One of the things that Girl at War did was remind me of my privileged American life. Awful things happen. Awful things are happening. We have almost zero idea about what war really means because we’re all snug in our homes while the fighting happens 1000s of miles away. This book is a reminder of what war is, what war truly consists of. People in a war-torn country don’t get to slap a bumper sticker on their car and feel like a patriot.
I think the word “war” really has been desensitized for many Americans. It’s easy for people to assume beng in a state of war looks and feels the same across the board, but America has long been a world power with the luxury of not having to fight on its own soil.
I’ve noticed quite a few people saying that the end felt too abrupt. Did you feel that?
Yes. The house in Tiska had not even been mentioned before so going there had no resonance. I understood trying to find the spot where her parents were killed but after that, it was anti-climatic. The book was backwards for me—a powerful beginning but by the end no emotional intensity. Ambiguity is fine, but I have to care and I didn’t.
Not at all, I felt like the ending was a perfect ambiguity for the situation that the main character was going through. Everything in her life after the execution of her parents was abrupt. It was fitting for the rest of the narrative.
I appreciate an ambiguous ending. Tying everything up with a pretty bow is boring and not very true to life.
On that note, I really appreciated Nović avoiding an insta-love connection between Ana and Luka when Ana returned to Croatia. I feel like it’s such an easy, but often unrealistic, route to take and I much preferred that we just saw some awkward attraction.
Insta-love is a huge pet peeve of mine; it’s so silly and I just don’t feel it belongs in a book like this. It automatically changes the tone and in this case, it would have been an unfortunate distraction. I also appreciated the more realistic awkwardness-but-nothing-more.
I was also glad that Ana and Luka did not immediately reconnect. That would have felt completely false.
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Share your thoughts, readers! How did you feel about Girl at War’s structure? How did the book change your perceptions? Do you feel that this is a novel more about PTSD and the effects of war than war itself?