This book was released into a crowded field, as many immigrant and western-educated authors of diverse origin publish English-language stories about war in their home countries. Particularly good novels in this category include Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht; A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini; and A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam. Even the exact premise of this book – protagonist experiences conflict in her home country as a girl, immigrates to the U.S., and later returns with an adult’s perspective – is hardly unique; for that I recommend Nayomi Munaweera’s Island of a Thousand Mirrors, or for a non-fictional version, Zainab Salbi’s Between Two Worlds.
All of which is to say that while Girl at War is not a terrible book, it does little to distinguish itself either on its literary merits, or as compared to similar stories; it’s the poor man or woman’s version of the books listed above. But one of the wonderful things about books is that pricing does not depend on quality, so you need not settle for less.
This book is divided into four sections, alternating between two time periods. In the first, our protagonist, Ana, is a 10-year-old Croatian girl who experiences violence firsthand when the Yugoslav Civil War breaks out in 1991. In the second, Ana is a 20-year-old college student in New York, who appears to be suffering from untreated PTSD; she decides to return to her now-peaceful home country in a desperate attempt to deal with her memories. (Has she considered therapy? In one of several head-scratchers, neither she nor her trained foster parents ever think of this, despite her extensive trauma symptoms.)
This is a quick read: the plot moves rapidly from one scenario to the next, not in the sense that there's much excitement or buildup of tension, but by briefly sketching many scenes rather than lingering or zooming in on a few. And the writing is simple and easy to read. The downside is that nothing pulled me in; the story feels flat and recycled, more like an outline than a completed novel. The writing style is bland and the scenes fail to come alive. The same is true of the characters. Ana's trauma seems to be the beginning and end of her character; the only other thing we know of her is that she was considered a tomboy as a child, and that's a single fact, not a complex personality. Nor are the other characters any better; they fulfill specific roles in the plot rather than emerging as interesting individuals.
Overall, then, my reading experience was that of being told a story, rather than feeling transported to the setting and experiencing it firsthand. It was too hurried, too bland, too mass-produced to be memorable for me. That said, I harbor no active dislike for the book; it contains a decent portrayal of the lasting effects of trauma, and readers will learn a bit about the most recent war in the Balkans. Those whose emotions are more readily engaged will no doubt have a more meaningful experience with it than I did. But lest you become exhausted with stories of civilians caught up in war, I'd recommend those books mentioned in the first paragraph of this review before this one.