Girl at War is the story of Ana Juric, who is ten years old when war overcomes her hometown of Zagreb, Croatia. The encroachment of violence and fear into her everyday life is hard for Ana to comprehend—she's used to freedom, playing with her friend Luka and running errands for her parents on her bike. But the war changes everything for Ana and her family.
Ten years later, as a college student in New York, Ana has tried to block out her past and make a normal life for herself. Over time her accent has faded, and her friends have no idea she wasn't born in New Jersey. Painful memories linger, however, and Ana won't be able to ignore them forever.
The narrative skips back and forth between these two periods in Ana's life. While the scenes of Ana's childhood, her experiences in the war, are searing and expertly written, I found the sections in which she has to come to terms with those memories and assimilate them into her settled new life even more compelling. Because of the damage she's suffered, she can't quite engage with her loved ones as fully as they would like, though it's not from lack of trying. Ana seemed immediately real to me, her stop-and-start attempts at forming bonds with other people heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time.
What's also striking to me about Girl at War is how recent its events are. Everything that occurs in the book happened during my lifetime—the Yugoslavian Civil War, the destruction of the World Trade Center—and there's something jarring (to this sheltered American, anyway) about a war narrative set in such recognizable times. I've read plenty of WWII novels (haven't we all?), but none that affected me so personally. No book set in the 1940s prompts me to wonder where I was or what I was doing while the characters suffered horrible, wrenching fates. Girl at War made me ask this and quite a few other uncomfortable questions of myself.