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320 pages, Hardcover
First published May 12, 2015
"The war in Zagreb began over a pack of cigarettes."'Serbian or Croatian?' asked the grumpy kiosk clerk, and the world of ten-year-old Ana Juric in the Zagreb summer of 1991 changed forever. From the slogans and air raids and simple childhood war games imitating the ever-worsening, ever more atrocious war in the Balkans - "War quickly became our favorite game and soon we had given up the park altogether" - to the life-shattering moment in the roadside wood (the horror of the chapter title "They Both Fell" when the actual meaning sinks in) to the child soldier mutely assembling an automatic rifle (“Forward grip, gas chamber, cleaning rod, bolt, frame, magazine, function check") to the field in which you need to shoot first before you are slaughtered.
“But when they got to the photos of the mass graves, I slipped out a side door and vomited in a potted plant. I didn’t come back for the rest of the presentation, not wanting to see someone I recognized.”Who cares that you are ten and should play soccer and ride bikes and have parents to take care of you - war does not discriminate based on age.
"The girls in the picture were strangers, but they could have just as easily been me. Caught in that void between childhood and puberty, skin still smooth but limbs gawky from growth spurts. Each held a Kalashnikov across her chest. The taller girl had her other arm over the shorter one's shoulder; they might have been sisters. Both gave half smiles to the camera, as if they remembered from another time that one was supposed to smile in photographs."
“A shot. My mother swayed on the rim of the muddy cavity. A dot of crimson appeared at the curve of her lip, streamed down her chin. She seemed to hover there, as if she’d jumped on purpose, landing quietly, not with the thud of the others before her.”Ana Juric never really escaped that forest. How can you, really? Having been a child in the war, a child witnessing the slaughter of her family, a child with a gun, how can you ever feel anything but “not at home in the world”? How can you make others understand?
“But the blood formed a pattern like a map to comprehension and I understood the differences all at once. I understood how one family could end up in the ground and another could be allowed to continue on its way, that the distinction between Serbs and Croats was much vaster than ways of writing letters. I understood the bombings, the afternoons sitting on the floor of my flat with black fabric covering the windows, the nights spent in concrete rooms. I understood that my father was not getting up.”
“Their musings about how and why people stayed in a country under such terrible conditions were what I hated most. I knew it was ignorance, not insight that prompted these questions. they asked because they hadn't smelled the air raid smoke or the scent of singed flesh on their own balconies; they couldn't fathom that such a dangerous place could still harbor all the feelings of home.”Sara Novic's debut novel is close to perfect. Wonderfully paced, skillfully written, at times hauntingly lyrical and at other times almost cruelly real, vivid and well-balanced between the horror of the past and the weight of the present, it is among of the best books I've read in the last few years. It avoids most of the false notes that are so easy to hit in a book based on such a soul-shattering premise. It's fresh and sound and very, very good.
"In Croatia, life in wartime had meant a loss of control, war holding sway over every thought and movement, even while you slept. It did not allow for forgetting. But America’s war did not constrain me, it did not cut off my water or shrink my food supply. There was no threat of takeover with tanks and foot soldiers or cluster bombs, not here. What war meant in America was so incongruous with what happened in Croatia-what must be happening in Afghanistan-that it almost seemed a misuse of the word."
“Damir taught me how to fieldstrip and reassemble an AK. Forward grip, gas chamber, cleaning rod, bolt (piston first), frame, magazine. “Function check!” It meant to cock the gun as a test, but anyone completing the check yelled it triumphantly, a battle cry preceding the first burst of gunfire. The fieldstrip was a protocol that never changed, and I found solace in the repetition.”
“In Croatia, life in wartime had meant a loss of control, war holding sway over every thought and movement, even while you slept. It did not allow for forgetting. But America’s war did not constrain me, it did not cut off my water or shrink my food supply. There was no threat of takeover with tanks and foot soldiers or cluster bombs, not here. What war meant in America was so incongruous with what happened in Croatia-what must be happening in Afghanistan-that it almost seemed a misuse of the word.”
“I put my elbows on the counter to get the clerk’s attention. Mr. Petrovic 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 heard people on the news talking about Serbs and Croatians this way because of the fighting in the villages. And I didn’t want to buy the wrong kind of cigarettes.”
“The village was no longer a village-anything once made it deserving of the title, including residents, were long gone. Most of the buildings had been reduced to rubble, collapsed slabs of concrete. The few that were left standing were all the eerier for it; the glass was blown out, but nothing was boarded up, leaving hollow sockets where the windows had been…down the street I could see a large stone house painted black …when we got close enough, I could see that the building hadn’t been painted at all; it was black with soot, the windows gone and the shutters burned off. “Chetnik headquarters,’ I said. “They raped so many women here.” Luka stuck his hands in his pockets, looking squeamish. “I was too little,” I said. “And I had a gun.”
they couldn't fathom that such a dangerous place could still harbour all the feelings of home.
Another part of writing that seems inextricable from hearing is dialogue. Someone who writes dialogue well is said to “have an ear” for it. I don’t think I write dialogue well. Whether this is just your average writerly paranoia or is linked to the physiology of hearing loss, I can’t say. . . In the writing world, any trace of this directness [of American Sign Language] translates as “bad dialogue.” “That’s not how people talk,” my workshop mates have said. And of course, they’re right.