Matters of Life & Death: Sara Nović on Girl at War

Article by Alan Bett | 18 Mar 2016

Sara Nović pours herself into her central character in Girl at War: the ten-year-old Ana, caught up in the atrocities of the Balkan conflict. We speak to the Baileys Prize longlistee about trauma and memory, as her debut novel hits shelves in paperback.

When travelling down Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, you’ll pass along crumbling cliff edges, falling dramatically into azure seas which themselves blend into skies of matching hues. You’ll witness fishing boats motoring to harbour and tourists waiting to wash down their catch with local wine. Just off the beautiful and historic city of Split, one percenters anchor super yachts around the party paradise of Hvar Island. Fun seekers drop pills and party until dawn in clubs like Carpe Diem. Not so long ago, the days were very different – instead, bodies and bombs were being dropped across much of the country.

Forgive the cheap travel guide opener to this feature. But, like the exiled protagonist of the book we’re here to discuss, let’s appreciate the juxtaposition of Croatia then and now. Let's consider past trauma from a distance.

The Balkan wars of the early 90s exist largely outwith this generation’s consciousness. They occurred on the edge of the internet age, and so missed being documented as intensely and theatrically as more recent conflicts. They are also so difficult to comprehend – this tangled catastrophe of nationalism and ethnic loyalties, of official armed forces fighting civilian militias. Geographically confusing, the war's topography was scarred with the disputed borders of territories within territories.  And within this conflict was a war within a war: the Croat-Bosniak War was largely ignored by western media: it took the spectre of the subsequent Bosnian genocide to turn the collective heads of Western Nations. Yet this early Balkan hostility – in which the infamously sieged Sarajevo was still seen as sanctuary – is the backdrop to the astonishing debut novel from Sara Nović.

Real-life experiences: Sara Nović as Ana

For those picking up Girl at War without prior knowledge, it would be forgivable to mistake it for memoir. The main protagonist, Ana, is a ten-year-old girl from Zagreb, enjoying the innocence that should be universally packaged up with those early years of life. Ana Jurić/Sara Nović: matching vowel sounds and syllables. Both with sandy brown hair and freckled faces. Yet the dates don’t match up. Nović was born in 1987 and grew up in the US (currently residing in Brooklyn). Her Croatian background piqued a personal interest and contributed towards securing survivor interviews and research opportunities in the country of her roots.

The similarities between herself and Ana made it a simple, yet far from painless process for Nović to pour herself into the shell of this character and write highly believable first person prose – to empathise with the horror and trauma she experiences. “Ana and I are kinda similar in personality,” the author confirms when we meet in the utterly un-traumatic lobby of an upmarket Edinburgh hotel, easing into comfortable seats, preparing to discuss the horrors of war. “I think she’s a cooler version of me,” she admits through half-stifled laughter.

There is less laughter in the text. It features moments of extreme grief and blistering savagery; both opposing the oft familiar lionisation of war. The choice of central character is perfect then: a civilian, a child, a girl. “The way that civilians fought this war and were affected by this war was not the way that people think about war – at least in the States, usually,” Nović says. “And for her to be a girl, the same thing. War doesn’t care if it’s a guy or a girl particularly.”

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Structurally, the narrative jump-cuts from past atrocity on the ground in Croatia to the modern day United States, Ana’s adopted homeland and supposed refuge. Pulling the readers so abruptly from the novel’s most dramatic moment is a jarring experience, a point the author admits disorientates some: “It seems to make some people angry… people get fatigued with violence. I just wanted them to keep feeling it and not shut down… I wanted people to have to sit with it the way that the character does.”

There is definite technique in forcing the reader to consider the conflict from a safe distance, viewed through the fractured lens of memory. “I was thinking a lot about trauma and memory,” Nović says. “How do you remember war? Like, war is not over just when it’s over. That was maybe the biggest theme for me in the book.

“When I was first writing the story that became this book, I was also doing research about trauma and how it affects people’s memories, scientifically. The whole country was under a huge amount of stress for an extended period of time. So the way people remember that time is very varied and I think that’s an important part of the narrative.”

Ana’s supposed safe haven of New Jersey in fact acts as a sort of purgatory, a stagnant period of post trauma where past horrors incubate. Ana is marked by them. Her UN handler recognizes her years later, solely by the look in her eyes. Ana herself acknowledges this same damaged gaze in fellow witnesses at a UN war crimes commission, confirming the universality of suffering: 'I looked over at the African boys, whose eyes were permanently reddened from too much rubbing or crying or coke, concealing some unidentified tragedy.' Her university Professor senses something within her – an old soul, he suggests. He offers her books: 'Kundera and Conrad and Levi and a host of other displaced persons.' Most importantly he asks that she read Sebald’s Austerlitz. They discuss the haunting lucidity of memory, what one will do to wipe it out. This holds equal fear for Ana, that she will fall short in her responsibility as witness. Professor Ariel offers a smile. “Damned if you do...”

This need to bear witness is part of the reason survivors opened up to Nović – many who felt the UN and NATO took notice of the conflict too late, then did too little. “Generally people that I talked to were very encouraging from the start and really wanted people to know about what happened,” she says. “I think it felt important and a relief just to get someone to listen.”

'A child with a gun' – the trauma of war: 

It seems frivolous to compare the experience of war with the act of writing about it, but it’s easy to imagine that these interviews themselves were traumatic. “Well yeah,” admits Nović. “I mean stuff that happened in this war was so awful, you know?” There were child soldiers, mass executions, torture and death squads – military commanders from each side have since been convicted of war crimes in The Hague. "I’m glad that I got the chance to bear witness to it but certainly it’s…” The interview has generally been jovial, considering the subject, with many sentences punctuated or disrupted by laughter. But here, for the first time, there’s a pause. “It’s quite, um, heavy stuff, so I think…” The answer fades into nothing.

'There’s no such thing as a child soldier in Croatia,’ Ana tells her UN audience in the book. 'There is only a child with a gun.' When, during the conflict, a soldier hears her repeatedly recite the motions of stripping and rebuilding a rifle, he suggests that this ten-year-old 'ain't no little kid.' This sounds chillingly similar to the sentiments of Syrian’s suffering today – some declaring in The Guardian that “we have no children any more, only small adults.” Ana’s playful pre-war running is replaced by an adrenaline fuelled zig-zag – designed to evade snipers and bombs. Play evolved into survival. Yet while Ana bypasses childhood, in many ways the nation’s adults regress to a cruel playground mentality. The book opens with a childish game soured by a Serb shopkeeper, cruelly teasing the Croat child: 'Do you want Serbian cigarettes or Croatian ones?' The war begins over a packet of cigarettes, for Ana at least. “I guess it’s like a levelling thing, war,” says Nović. “It puts people in this place where the stakes are life and death, so there’s maybe just this one response to it.”

The current response is memorial. Sebald may not agree, but Ana surely would. “One of the projects they’re doing now is the Book of the Dead and they’re just literally trying to write down everyone who was missing or dead from that war, to have some objectivity at the most basic level,” Nović says. This is one process for understanding. Another might be fiction. “I think people can definitely learn from reading fiction, but probably as a jumping off point. I think what fiction does best is give us the capacity to empathise with people that we wouldn’t otherwise.”

Her searing debut (longlisted, at the time of writing, for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction) certainly fulfils this role, just as it crumbled the emotional defences of a certain Skinny writer. But what about the harshest critics? Those who viewed these atrocities though their own eyes? “Yeah actually, even while I was writing the book I had a couple of readers in Croatia… I sent them a copy of the book now that it’s done and they wrote me an email and were like, ‘We got the book and we’re all crying,’ like, sitting around all crying and holding the book. So that was kinda lovely, in a sad way.” Nović shrugs wistfully. “It’s the nature of the book I guess, a black compliment.”

Girl at War is out in paperback on 24 Mar, published by Little Brown Book Group, RRP £8.99