The backstory: Girl at War is on the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize longlist. Update: Girl at War has been longlisted for the 2016 Baileys Prize.
The basics: In 1991, Ana is living a typical ten-year-old's life in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, when the Yugoslavian war breaks out.
My thoughts: I'm about the same age as Ana, so I was immediately drawn into her story. As a ten-year-old, she doesn't understand what's happening, and as a reader, neither did I. I've heard of the war, but my knowledge of it was slim at best. While coming of age stories set against a war backdrop are hardly new, Novic takes Ana's story in unexpected directions.
We enter the story in 1991, but the story is told in several nonlinear parts. The action next jumps to New York City in 2001, where Ana is in college. Novic skillfully moves locations and times in a way that enhance the story, both emotionally and in structurally. Again, I could have been one of Ana's peers in college at that time. I wouldn't have known what country Zagreb was in or the significance of what it meant to be Zagreb. Watching Ana negotiate these social and educational situations was fascinating. She's such a complicated, smart, and flawed character, and I loved spending time in her worlds.
Audiobook thoughts: Julia Whelan's narration was extraordinary. She featured different accents for different characters, which helped bring the Croatian sections to life even more vividly for me. The performance was so well done I had to remind myself it wasn't done with multiple narrators. After listening to it, I came across this essay Novic wrote about what it's like to be a deaf novelist and not be able to experience the audiobook version of your book. It's fascinating!
The verdict: Every so often I read a novel so good that has me gushing with cliched superlatives like haunting and lyrical. Girl at War is indeed a haunting, lyrical novel. It's also smart and beautiful. It's a window into a place and a time I was embarrassingly ignorant about, but it's also a deft depiction of a fascinating character who is both heroine and anti-heroine, extraordinary and ordinary. This novel is one of the best I've read this year, and I hope it becomes a modern classic. It's a novel that reminds me why I so love fiction--it can educate, connect, and remind me of the vastness of our shared humanity.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 7 hours 32 minutes (336 pages)
Publication date: May 12, 2015
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