Understated, self-assured roman à clef of a young girl’s coming of age in war-torn Croatia.
In this promising debut, Novic tells the story of 10-year-old Ana, for whom “the war in Zagreb began over a pack of cigarettes”: sent to fetch smokes for an indulgent godfather, she returns puzzling over the shopkeeper’s query whether she wants Serbian or Croatian. A cigarette is a cigarette is a cigarette, until it’s not. Then, like everything else, a packet of Filter 160s takes on the powers of shibboleth, something Ana and her best friend, Luka, have to learn, these distinctions not being inborn no matter what the nationalists insist. And imagine what happens, as Ana does, in neighboring Bosnia, “a confusing third category,” where people used both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets and probably smoked a third kind of tobacco. The war moves from abstraction to bitter reality soon enough, and Ana finds herself in a swirl of rumor (“Have you heard? The president exploded right at his desk!”) and motion, whisked across the continent and thence to America, where time passes and Ana finds herself explaining the world to uncomprehending young people: “I told him about Rahela’s illness and MediMission and Sarajevo. About the roadblock and the forest and how I’d escaped….When I finished, Brian was still holding my hand, but he didn’t say anything.” The tutelary spirits of W.G. Sebald (whom the aforementioned Brian deems “a bit of a German apologist”) and Rebecca West hover over the proceedings, and just as West once lamented that everyone she knew in the Balkans of the 1930s was dead by the 1950s, Ana assigns herself the scarifying task of sorting through the rubble of her homeland and reclaiming what can be saved of it—and of herself.
Elegiac, and understandably if unrelievedly so, with a matter-of-factness about death and uprootedness. A promising start.