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“Luka, I killed a man. Maybe more than one—who knows what happened when I was just shooting out the window. I could have hit someone else."
"You were defending yourself."
"I’m no better than any of them."
"You were a little kid. You didn’t even know what you were doing."
"No, that’s the thing. When I was shooting—when I shot that guy—I liked it. I knew it was bad and I liked it. I wasn’t sorry.”
This is a beautifully written debut novel. It has flowing prose, rich characters, and a vivid storyline with a POV that’s slightly removed so it’s not too sentimental. Diane Setterfield’s storytelling allows the reader to experience the tragedy of the war and the emotions it evokes without feeling overwhelmed by it.
This is a story told in the POV of Ana as a 10 year old living in Zagreb, Croatia in 1991 before and during the Yugoslavian Civil War and as a 20 year old college student living in NY in 2001 during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The story goes back and forth in time, but it’s very effectively done adding another layer of suspense.
In this story, you’ll experience Ana’s naiveté before the war, the tragic events during the war, the harsh living conditions in Croatia and the shocking things Ana has to do just to survive. Ana runs to bomb shelters during air raid drills, she shoots an AK-47 and learns how to avoid landmines. Ana courageously escapes Croatia to America and ten years later as a college student, she’s still haunted by her past, but continues to push back her feelings to try to remain numb. Her past continues to affect her life, especially her relationships. As an adult, Ana feels stuck, unable to go back or move forward in her life and eventually she learns that she must face what she’s been avoiding for ten years.
After living in Croatia for ten years and America for ten years, she still feels lost and doesn’t know where she belongs:
“I want to go home, I said, all too aware I had no idea where that might be.”
There was never enough to eat in Croatia due to the food rations. She continues to have issues with food in her adulthood:
“People’s use of the word starving when they obviously were not had always bothered me, but it was especially irritating at college, where every night was a buffet of excess. I thought of the piles of roast chicken and potato salad and fluorescent yellow corn bread the school was likely serving for Sunday dinner, then throwing away.”
Her adoptive mother Laura takes her to her first physical where Ana learns the full effects of the food deprivation she experienced for years:
“In Croatia I had been a normal-size fifth grader. In America I was skinny. When I went for the my first physical, I didn’t hit the minimum on the growth charts for weight and height.”
After the physical, Laura has to start giving Ana nutritional milkshakes, which makes Ana ill and she tells Laura how she feels about it:
“I told her feeling full was awful and I never wanted to do it again. I panicked and threw up every night for the rest of the week.”
While in college, she gives a speech to the UN about her experience during the civil war. Part of her speech was a wake-up call, not only for the UN, but for me as well:
“You should know that your food aid does not reach the people it’s supposed to," I said. "In the place where I stayed, there were no Peacekeepers, and the Cetniks stole the aid meant for civilians. If you drop the food and leave, you’re just feeding your enemy. We had guns, but they had more. Firepower is the only thing that determines who eats.”
My heart dropped when I read her speech because I felt so helpless. I often wonder who is actually benefiting from our supplies when we help other countries in need, especially in these hostile environments and Ana’s speech confirmed my suspicions. It’s heartbreaking to learn that all of our help as a nation isn’t really helping.
I was fascinated by Ana’s interpretations of Americans’ views when she occasionally revealed fragments of her past. Although her city was volatile, she still viewed it as home and most Americans were in awe that she could still love and want to live in that environment. She reminds us of the sheltered lives we live in the U.S. and our lack of true understanding of those who have lived as she has. When we hear stories from those who have experienced tragedies similar to Ana’s, we pretend to sympathize, but how can we when we’ve never walked a mile in their shoes?
Ana returns to Croatia in search of answers and peace. The ending is perfect, but I was sad that it ended. It’s one of those novels that lingers in your mind well after the story ends.
You don’t have to love historical fiction to love this book. It’s ideal for readers who don’t need a positive experience or a happy storyline in order to enjoy a novel. I can see this book becoming a bestseller.
Jenny's Book Bag Girl at War review.