Opening Lines: Debut Novels 2015 - Girl at War by Sara Novic

Posted on 22nd June 2015 by Jonathan O'Brien & Sara Novic
A beautiful coming of age story set during the Croatian Civil War

There's nothing more exciting than discovering a new voice, writing at the start of their career. That's why we're highlighting our favourite debut authors of the year so far.

Sara Novic's Girl at War is one of those rare debut novels that you can't quite believe is the author's first book. Its opening (which you can read below) perfectly portrays the uneasiness of Ana, a child old enough to be aware of upcoming trouble but still too young to understand it. It's made even more heartbreaking to know that Ana's experiences weren't that uncommon only a couple of decades ago.

As Ana matures she understands more (Novic never sugarcoats the horrors of war) and, without spoiling the plot, by the end of the book she's a fully-rounded woman trying to move on from the events of her disrupted childhood.

Girl at War is a wonderfully honest, occasionally painful book about war and growing up. A very impressive debut.


The war in Zagreb began over a pack of cigarettes. There had been tensions beforehand, rumours of disturbances in other towns whispered above my head, but no explosions, nothing outright. Caught between the mountains, Zagreb sweltered in the summer, and most people abandoned the city for the coast during the hottest months. For as long as I could remember my family had vacationed with my godparents in a fishing village down south. But the Serbs had blocked the roads to the sea, at least that’s what everyone was saying, so for the first time in my life we spent the summer inland.

Everything in the city was clammy, doorknobs and train handrails slick with other people’s sweat, the air heavy with the smell of yesterday’s lunch. We took cold showers and walked around the flat in our underwear. Under the run of cool water I imagined my skin sizzling, steam rising from it. At night we lay atop our sheets, awaiting fitful sleep and fever dreams.

I turned ten in the last week of August, a celebration marked by a soggy cake and eclipsed by heat and disquiet. My parents invited their best friends—my godparents, Petar and Marina—over for dinner that weekend. The cottage where we usually stayed the summers belonged to Petar’s grandfather. My mother’s break from teaching allowed us three months of vacation—my father taking a train, meeting us later—and the five of us would live there together on the cliffs along the Adriatic. Now that we were landlocked, the weekend dinners had become an anxious charade of normalcy.

Before Petar and Marina arrived I argued with my mother about putting on clothes.

“You’re not an animal, Ana. You’ll wear shorts to dinner or you’ll get nothing.”

“In Tiska I only wear my swimsuit bottoms anyway,” I said, but my mother gave me a look and I got dressed.

That night the adults were engaging in their regular argument about exactly how long they’d known each other. They had been friends since before they were my age, they liked to say, no matter how old I was, and after the better part of an hour and a bottle of FeraVino they’d usually leave it at that. Petar and Marina had no children for me to play with, so I sat at the table holding my baby sister and listening to them vie for the farthest-reaching memory. Rahela was only eight months old and had never seen the coast, so I talked to her about the sea and our little boat, and she smiled when I made fish faces at her.

After we ate, Petar called me over and handed me a fistful of dinar. “Let’s see if you can beat your record,” he said. It was a game between us—I would run to the store to buy his cigarettes and he would time me. If I beat my record he’d let me keep a few dinar from the change. I stuffed the money in the pocket of my cut-offs and took off down the nine flights of stairs.

I was sure I was about to set a new record. I’d perfected my route, knew when to hug the curves around buildings and avoid the bumps in the side streets. I passed the house with the big orange beware of dog sign (though no dog ever lived there that I could remember), jumped over a set of cement steps, and veered away from the dumpsters. Under a concrete archway that always smelled like piss, I held my breath and sped into the open city. I skirted the biggest pothole in front of the bar frequented by the daytime drinkers, slowing only slightly as I came upon the old man at his folding table hawking stolen chocolates. The newsstand kiosk’s red awning shifted in a rare breeze, signalling me like a finish line flag.

I put my elbows on the counter to get the clerk’s attention. Mr. Petrović knew me and knew what I wanted, but today his smile looked more like a smirk.

“Do you want Serbian cigarettes or Croatian ones?” The way he stressed the two nationalities sounded unnatural. I had heard people on the news talking about Serbs and Croats this way because of the fighting in the villages, but no one had ever said anything to me directly. And I didn’t want to buy the wrong kind of cigarettes.

“Can I have the ones I always get, please?”

“Serbian or Croatian?”

“You know. The gold wrapper?” I tried to see around his bulk, pointing to the shelf behind him. But he just laughed and waved to another customer, who sneered at me.

“Hey!” I tried to get the clerk’s attention back. He ignored me and made change for the next man in line. I’d already lost the game, but I ran home as fast as I could anyway.

“Mr. Petrović wanted me to pick Serbian or Croatian cigarettes,” I told Petar. “I didn’t know the answer and he wouldn’t give me any. I’m sorry.”

My parents exchanged looks and Petar motioned for me to sit on his lap. He was tall—taller than my father—and flushed from the heat and wine. I climbed up on his wide thigh.

“It’s okay,” he said, patting his stomach. “I’m too full for cigarettes anyway.” I pulled the money from my shorts and relinquished it. He pressed a few dinar coins into my palm.

“But I didn’t win.”

“Yes,” he said. “But today that’s not your fault.”

That night my father came into the living room, where I slept, and sat down on the bench of the old upright piano. We’d inherited the piano from an aunt of Petar’s—he and Marina didn’t have space for it—but we couldn’t afford to have it tuned, and the first octave was so flat all the keys gave out the same tired tone. I heard my father pressing the foot pedals down in rhythm with the habitual nervous jiggle of his leg, but he didn’t touch the keys. After a while he got up and came to sit on the armrest of the couch, where I lay. Soon we were going to buy a mattress.

“Ana? You awake?”

I tried to open my eyes, felt them flitting beneath the lids.

“Awake,” I managed.

“Filter 160s. They’re Croatian. So you know for next time.”

“Filter 160s,” I said, committing it to memory.

My father kissed my forehead and said goodnight, but I felt him in the doorway moments later, his body blocking out the kitchen lamplight.

“If I’d been there,” he whispered, but I wasn’t sure he was talking to me so I stayed quiet and he didn’t say anything else. 


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