Around 2014 and 2015 I wrote book reviews for the website, Quadrapheme, which now seems to have disappeared into the ether. So, I am re-posting them here for posterity.
Brick Mother, SJ Bradley (Dead Ink); Wanderlust: A History of Walking – Rebecca Solnit (Granta); A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday); Kauthar – Meike Zeirvogel (Salt); Harvest – Jim Crace (Picador); Girl at War – Sara Novic (Little, Brown)
Brick Mother, SJ Bradley (Dead Ink)
Last year SJ Bradley was featured in the independent publisher Dead Ink’s anthology LS13, which showcased twenty Leeds writers under the age of forty. Her debut novel Brick Mother is one of the first two print novels now published by Dead Ink Books and focuses on the lives of staff and patients at Cedar Hospital Healthley, a private secure mental hospital in a fictionalised part of West Yorkshire.
Bradley herself has a background in mental health work, from which she brings us a sense of the humdrum pressures of working in overstretched services: the constant awareness of time, a background of dormant threat, and a crushingly unsupportive atmosphere between members of staff who dislike, disagree with, or simply don’t know each other. We meet Barney, a heroically avuncular social worker, Donna, a nursing assistant who lives on the estate at the end of the bus route with her school-age son, and Neriste, a burned-out art therapist who is relegated to a leaky portakabin outside the main building. We also get to know patients like Nathan, who has committed terrible crimes but appears to be making progress, and Andy, who is both violent and vulnerable. However, since our knowledge of these patients is always filtered by staff observations and clinical discussions, we ultimately don’t know what’s going on inside their heads; we don’t know who can be trusted. This narrative strategy generates mounting tensions that make the novel a real page turner.
The pace is also helped along by Bradley’s prose style, which is perhaps deliberately un-showy but still leaves room for moments of austere beauty. As Donna walks back to the hospital with Nathan after a carefully pre-planned visit to the local newsagents, we see this image of the institution that defines his life:
Roofs shone bright between patches of clear sky. The hospital showed itself in glimpses as they came up the hill. A chimney between trellises; the stern brick walls between privets. Donna thought she saw a rainbow for a moment. And then the hospital again, with its strong lines, its high hard windows. A firm red behind the leaves. It grew bigger the closer they came.
An impressive feature of this novel is the way Bradley’s simplicity of style contrasts with the complexity of the questions she is raising about our mental health care services: what does it mean to have a certain diagnosis? Is it right to lock people up indefinitely on mental health grounds? How and why do we institutionalise people? What are the boundaries between being sick and being well? Who gets to decide what counts as rehabilitation or recovery? What happens when the system fails or wrong judgements are made? What toll does this work take on the staff? There are no straightforward answers here. Instead, in the style of much good social realism, Bradley lets us see people dealing with moral complexity, tough choices, and their unintended consequences.
So, while Brick Mother is not a political polemic, it does provide glimpses of a mental health system that many believe to be in crisis. Bradley focuses, importantly, on characters and locations that are not always visible to the metropolitan elites, showing us a picture of ‘hardworking people’ ground down by the conditions in underfunded semi-privatised services in unglamorous parts of the UK. Her story takes us past bus stations, housing offices, bleakly beautiful moors and uninspiring high streets full of pound shops and arcades. And it shows us vulnerable people whose needs are not always met by the systems designed to care for them. However, despite the grim subject matter, Bradley writes with an obvious affection for her characters, balancing empathy for their situations with a wry and perhaps distinctively northern humour. A man let down repeatedly by the social care system jokes that housing associations are ‘never knowingly prompt.’ A harried doctor is ‘the kind of woman who uses her handbag instead of a bin.’ An imperious patient sits smugly ‘like a company director waiting to be brought biscuits’. It is this combination of warmth, insight, and good old fashioned suspense that makes this debut novel a success and its author one to watch.
Wanderlust: A History of Walking – Rebecca Solnit (Granta)
At one point during her singular yet expansive History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit tells us that she has worked out that the text of her previous book laid out end-to-end would have been four miles long. First published in 2000 and then updated in 2006, this new imprint of Wanderlust arrives, courtesy of Granta Books, at a time when many more miles’ worth musings on the meaning of walking have been added, most recently by Frédéric Gros, whose French bestseller A Philosophy of Walking has just been published by Verso. Midway through her own survey of walking literature, Solnit wearily notes that “to hear about walking from someone whose only claim on our attention is to have walked far is like getting one’s advice on food from people whose only credentials come from winning pie eating contests.” Fortunately, though Solnit has certainly covered some miles, her claims on our attention are many. Interweaving beautifully detailed stories of her own walks across far flung and familiar landscapes, she leads us on a meandering but thoroughly invigorating tour around the various social, political, cultural, religious or sexual meanings that have attached themselves to the basic act of putting one foot in front of the other.
While the pleasures of the solitary stroll are well-documented here, there’s a huge cast of characters to be found striding across the pages of Wanderlust. We amble alongside philosophical and literary heavyweights such as Kierkegaard, Rousseau and Wordsworth, cross paths with countercultural notables like Gary Snyder, Patti Smith and David Wojnarowicz, and happen upon many other lesser-known pilgrims, protesters, ramblers, revolutionaries, street-walkers, mountaineers and trail-blazers along the way. Solnit also covers a potentially exhausting range of topics, from theories of bipedalism (or why humans walk on two legs), to the Buddhist circumambulation of mountains, to conceptual art and the insurrectionary parties of Reclaim the Streets. Thankfully though, while the book is strikingly well-researched, Solnit’s writing is never weighed down by the volume of her source material. In fact, one of her most enviable talents is her ability to tell vividly detailed and diversely populated stories about large scale cultural metamorphoses or shifts, illuminating the “specific cultural ancestry” of facets of life that could easily go unexamined.
A case in point is her chapter ‘The Path Out of the Garden,’ which explores how increasing numbers of people came to view walking in the countryside as an aesthetic experience rather than just a means to an end or a danger best avoided. Beginning with an examination of changing fashions in country house architecture and garden design in eighteenth-century England, it’s full of the kind of cultural miscellany that has been keeping academics in PhD topics for decades but seems unlikely to demand wider attention. However, as Solnit builds her narrative, taking in the Romantic poets, the industrial revolution, the growth of walking clubs and battles over land rights and access, we start to see how “the [initially aristocratic] taste for walking and landscape became a kind of Trojan horse that would eventually democratize many arenas and in the twentieth century literally bring down the barriers around aristocratic estates.”
Solnit is thus at her best when her knack for spotting the surprises or ironies of the everyday aligns with her radical streak. In a superbly-titled chapter ‘Aerobic Sisyphus and the Suburbanized Psyche’ she fails to walk around the suburbs of her native southern California, takes a wry look at the history of the treadmill (first dreamed up in the early nineteenth century, we’re told, for the physical and moral subjugation of prisoners), and casts walking as a social and cultural “indicator species for various kinds of freedoms and pleasures: free time, free and alluring space, and unhindered bodies”. From this she speculates about what kind of psychological possibilities are curtailed when options for walking freely in public spaces are closed down, whether by car-dominated urban planning, the creeping privatisation of public space, restrictive gender expectations, or other encroachments on civil liberties.
If there are criticisms to be levelled at Wanderlust, one is perhaps that in her most high-flown moments Solnit can be seen to gesture towards a generality of experience that may not ring true for everyone. If the walker is “one of the most compelling and universal images of what it mean to be human,” it would be interesting to see her take one further detour and consider a disability rights angle on all of this. However, hers is, as she says of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, “a scholarship of evocation rather than definition”—this is a history, not ‘The. What she evokes so successfully here is something intangible and emotive about the relationships between moving on foot, thinking, and writing—all ways in which people expend efforts in trying to make sense of the world and invest places with meaning. Most fundamentally intrigued by the relationship between walking and the mind, Solnit challenges us to explore what kind of insights and experiences might be nurtured if we start slowing down and damn well noticing things: “I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.”
If this was so when Wanderlust was first published in 2000, Solnit’s warning seems yet more prescient now as the temptations of online immediacy encroach ever further on our lives (as she so perceptively ruminates upon in a recent article in the London Review of Books). That said, we shouldn’t mistake her argument for a simple ‘let’s get back to nature’ polemic. Wanderlust’s concluding chapter sees Solnit walking down the Las Vegas strip, offering a surprisingly hopeful celebration of the area’s resurgent pedestrianism, its architectural ironies, and the potentially subversive power latent in the act of walking in public. She suggests that “what is often taken as the pleasure of another place may simply be that of the different sense of time, space and sensory stimulation available anywhere one goes slowly,” inviting us to revel in our own open-ended psychological wanderings when we set out on foot—wherever we may be, wherever we are going.
A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)
Towards the end of Kate Atkinson’s last novel, Life after Life, Teddy Todd is resurrected. A pilot shot down in a bombing raid over Germany in 1943, he was presumed dead by his family. Teddy’s return is a redemptive moment at the end of a novel structured around the multiple resurrections of his older sister Ursula who lives, loves, and dies (or doesn’t) in various increasingly disorienting permutations against the backdrop of two World Wars.
A God in Ruins has been cast as a ‘companion’ rather than a sequel, welcoming back a cast of familiar characters and introducing us to their descendants. Atkinson revisits some of the ambiguous plot points of her previous novel, fixing certain outcomes while also suggesting yet more alternate versions. Fans will no doubt enjoy doing some narrative detective work here. However, readers who found Life after Life’s tricksiness and repetition difficult to swallow may find respite in the slightly more forgiving structure of its follow up.
That’s not to say A God in Ruins isn’t very cleverly put together. Atkinson’s masterful non-linear storytelling gradually pieces together a mosaic of Teddy’s life—a life that he never expected to have: “he had been reconciled to death during the war and then suddenly the war was over and there was a next day and a next day and a next day.” She brings us different characters’ perspectives not only on Teddy story but on nearly a century of changes in British culture. We see Teddy and his granddaughter watching the Queen’s sodden Jubilee flotilla on the Thames. A mid-century kitchen sink drama is played out as Teddy suspects his wife Nancy of infidelity. We see mad old aristocrats in a crumbling stately home, visit a commune in the 1980s and, poignantly, hear tales of Teddy’s wartime heroics set against his moves to a series of care homes.
It is in many ways a deeply sad novel. Teddy has resolved to be kind and to try to live a good life but in reality his story is marked by small disappointments and life-changing tragedies. His daughter Viola and her partner Dominic are self-obsessed baby boomers who wreak havoc in the lives of their children. If this is Atkinson’s comment on the post-war generations, it is a bleak one. But A God in Ruins also shares many of the features that make Atkinson’s novels such a joy: her vivid depictions of homes and family life; her capricious sense of history; her sprinklings of literary quotation; her trademark jocular humour; and her ability to handle deep philosophical quandaries with a deceptively light touch.
“What if we had the chance to do it again and again … until we finally get it right?” This was Life after Life’s central question. A God in Ruins insists instead that we do only have one life and that the question of how we live it is profound and worthy of serious reflection. Atkinson makes this assertion in the context of massive and systematic loss of life in the Second World War. Having catalogued the visceral horror of the Blitz in Life after Life, show now brings us a richly detailed and terrifying account of the sacrifices of Bomber Command, whilst also reflecting with sensitivity on complex moral questions about the destruction wrought on civilian populations: “across the world millions of lives are altered by the absence of the dead.” And then, as the narrative zeroes in on Teddy’s final flight, Atkinson delivers a literary volte-face that calls to mind McEwan’s Atonement, packing an emotional punch while also tempting us to think more abstract thoughts about truth and fiction.
In some respects, Atkinson’s most recent two books have returned to the playfulness of form that marked out her earlier works like Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet from her later series of Jackson Brodie crime novels. Atkinson appears to both acknowledge and reject this distinction by having her author-character Viola back out of a debate at a literary festival: ‘Popular versus literary- a false divide?’ If this is a question worth asking in relation to Atkinson’s oeuvre, A God in Ruins seems to answer with an emphatic yes: it’s a beautifully written, multi-faceted novel that asks big questions, and is sure to be very popular indeed.
Kauthar – Meike Zeirvogel (Salt)
On page one of Meike Ziervogel’s latest novel, a suicide bomber blows herself up at a US army checkpoint in Baghdad. ‘It’s the English woman,’ we’re told. This bold and provocative opening premise resonates sharply with current debates about radicalisation: who is this English woman and why has she done this?
In seeking to answer these questions, Ziervogel skips forwards and backwards across a period of twenty years, accumulating episodes in the life of Lydia, who renames herself Kauthar when she converts to Islam. On one level it’s a plausibly familiar tale: a woman finds religion at a low point in life. Lydia’s affair with a married man has collapsed in distressing circumstances; her career has stalled; she’s been slipping into problem-drinking. Then she meets Rabia and is drawn to her Muslim faith: ‘a beautiful routine of submission, prayer and praise.’ When she marries Rafiq, she finds coherence and stability: ‘I have found my way, my religion, my husband, my life.’ But their relationship is tested by the events of 9/11, which ultimately lead Rafiq back to his native Iraq to work as a doctor during the war. Here, the story takes a darker turn as Kauthar is unable to accept how the perfect rules of her new religion can become entangled in the messiness of culture and politics.
It’s a hugely ambitious novel and there are clearly risks involved in asking the reader to accept such a profound transformation—and one with such hot-button political relevance—in less than 150 pages. Kauthar in some ways reads more like a short story where all extraneous detail has been cut away, allowing a series of insightful moments to do the work of longer character development. Sometimes this is strikingly successful. In a perfectly pitched little scene, precocious young Lydia challenges a vicar who fudges answers to difficult questions about her upcoming confirmation: ‘All you have to say is that you believe in God. That’s enough.’ There’s also a lovely thread running through about Lydia’s father’s not-quite-successful-enough career as a gymnast, and Lydia’s childhood desire to please him by becoming the next Nadia Comaneci. And there are some beautiful and almost sensuous descriptions of religious rituals: we see newly married Rafiq and Kauthar praying together, mingling romantic love and religious fervour in powerful ways that, for Kauthar, will begin sliding into destructive obsession.
However, the narrative can feel over-condensed in places. Kauthar’s relationship with Rabia—so central to her religious conversion—is quite thinly sketched. At one point they seem to be rattling through a series of FAQs for the benefit of a western readership: ‘Isn’t Islam misogynistic?’ and ‘Why do Muslim women cover themselves?’ Then we later discover that Rabia has died of cancer ‘two years ago’ but Ziervogel doesn’t stop to explore the details or implications, leaving poor Rabia as a sort of abandoned plot device. And, as events lead us back to the moment the novel began, some of the plot twists and coincidences do seem a little too quick and neat.
That said, the novel makes numerous meaningful attempts at cross-cultural translation which are, in many ways, more interesting than its ‘ripped from the headlines’ framing device about the suicide bombing. Ziervogel moved from her native Germany to study Arabic in London and the novel is speckled with historical, cultural and religious detail. We hear about how it feels to write in Arabic, which is ‘not only a foreign language like German or French. It’s a different script, an unfamiliar way of thinking, another religion and culture, new laws and rules that [Lydia] would have to learn like a newborn.’ Ziervogel evokes the attraction for Lydia of abandoning cherished western versions of individual freedom. She also asks us to think about why there are so many people in Kauthar’s life who perceive there to be something inherently suspect about a western woman choosing to adopt the Muslim faith: from her mother’s almost comic request that she not wear her hijab out in her home village, to vague mistrust by her colleagues, to abuse from strangers in the street.
Such episodes point to an unresolved tension at the heart of Kauthar. So much of the novel seeks to challenge stereotypes about Muslims in Britain, but the story arc is structured around a suicide bombing—the most contentious stereotype of all. The ‘whydunnit’ set- up also imbues Kauthar’s path to violence with a sense of inevitability, which in some respects is a bit troubling. However, the fact that Ziervogel manages to tease out so many complexities over such a short novel says much about the piercing clarity of her writing. While displaying a rare talent for brevity, she also makes important space for listening to challenging perspectives and worldviews that are not often heard in mainstream debates, and arguably need to be.
Harvest – Jim Crace (Picador)
Surrounded by ‘the land’ and closed off from an indeterminate ‘elsewhere,’ the inhabitants of ‘the village’ are accustomed to beating their children’s heads against the merestones that mark the edge of their existence. In doing so, they seemingly ascribe to their paternalistic Master’s dictum: ‘If we stay within our bounds, there are no bounds to stay us.’ But all is not well in their world. An unsettling visitor, nicknamed Mr Quill, is mapping the village. Not only this, three strangers have set up camp in the outlying forest, lighting fires to assert their right to settle on common land. That same night, Master Kent’s dove loft is burned down. Although we know the culprits are really some disgruntled local lads high on ‘fairy caps,’ a pitchforked mob sets out the next day to hold the outsiders to account, setting in motion a string of events that will see the village changed forever over the course of just seven days.
Jim Crace’s new novel Harvest takes place at an unspecified time, in an unspecified location, but is overtly a story about place, identity, and historical forces of social and economic change. We are presumably in England, presumably sometime between Sixteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, in the midst of a widely repeated narrative that will see notions of ‘common wealth’ replaced by private ownership and profit motives. Through the eyes, ears and speculations of villager Walter Thirsk, we witness the cynicism by which a powerful new landowner, Master Jordan, engineers the social disintegration of the village in order to enclose the land and make way for his sheep.
Crucially, Walter himself is a relative newcomer to the village: ‘not a product of these commons but just a visitor who stayed.’ A middle-aged, brown-haired widower, he has lived amongst the village’s long-established blonde families for a mere twelve years after marrying a local woman. He doesn’t truly belong, but he’s been resident long enough to know the place and its people. When the harvest has been gathered, Walter can tell from the length and angle of the scrub which person has cut each swath of wheat. And, through Walters’s deep awareness of his surroundings, Crace treats us to some wonderfully sensuous nature writing. Here is Walter navigating the village during a midnight storm:
I pick up smells I can name. The master’s byres of course. The sweating of his silage heaps. But other gentler odours too. The acrid smell – exaggerated by the rain – of elder trees. The bread-and-biscuit smell of rotting wood. The piss-and-honey tang of apple trees.
However, Crace’s depiction of rural life is neither twee nor nostalgic: ‘the countryside is argumentative. It wants to pick a fight with you.’ The community subsists in a mutually beneficial way for the most part, but we are introduced to a cast of characters who are ‘daily nervous for the crop.’ They regularly experience hunger, injury and loss, as well as any number of small indignities and rustic pleasures arising from life in an isolated agrarian setting. The novel also contains more than a few moments of startling violence: an asphyxiated man has his legs chewed off by roaming pigs; another is knifed in a fight and ends up with a ‘freshly carved gargoyle face.’
And, for all Walter’s sense of kinship with the landscape and desire to belong, he is conscious of the bounds and limitations of village life in a way that others are not. Deprived of his closest connection to the other villagers by the loss of his wife, he also feels an emotional affinity with the outsiders who have by now been subjected to some harsh and arbitrary punishments. Fortunately, this makes Walter an exhilarating narrator, constantly trying different perspectives, seeking out higher ground, wider views, and even hallucinatory visions (those pesky fairy caps again). From our twenty-first-century vantage point, here he sounds almost prophetic:
This land … has always been much older than ourselves. … Not anymore. … This ancient place would soon be new. … We are used to looking out and seeing what’s preceded us, and what will outlive us. Now we have to contemplate a land bare of both. … We’ll look across these fields and say, ‘This land is so much younger than ourselves.’
When he is chosen to accompany Mr Quill on his survey of the village, Walter is initially ambivalent about these map-making endeavours and yet he is drawn to the strange and alluring abstractions that result:
The land is effortless: a lie. He hasn’t captured time: how long a walk might take; how long a piece of work might take; how long the seasons or the nights last. No man has ever seen this view. But it is beautiful, nevertheless.
He is beginning to understand the revolutionary consequences of this new way of looking at ‘our little world,’ a realisation that leaves him feeling ‘oddly breathless.’ He also knows that the supposedly malevolent outsiders are themselves refugees from enclosures elsewhere. But he doesn’t share his inklings about the changes afoot with the other villagers. Instead, he tentatively collaborates with the change-makers in the vain hope he may be able to intervene. So, as things go wrong and accusations of ‘witchery’ and devilment start flying around, Walter himself is increasingly viewed as suspect and the ‘we’ of his opening narrative gradually becomes an ‘I.’ Just as insidiously, we can see that before the interference of Master Jordan, the community already contains the seeds of its own undoing—a short sighted fear of outsiders; a propensity for violence against women—that are fruitfully manipulated by those who are quite happy to see the have-nots turning against each other.
Although the course of these events is suffused with a sense of near-mythical inevitability, the story never feels predictable. Both economical and detailed, Crace’s novel is supremely well crafted. His narrative is tightly bound to its seven day timespan, to the vividly realised geography of the village, and to the significant objects that drive the plot forward: a moonball fungus, a shawl, a log, a stone. In a world where everything is linked to landscape and labour, even the vellum upon which Mr Quill will draw his game-changing map comes from a calf slaughtered to celebrate the harvest. Indeed, Crace spends a long time showing us how Walter stretches and treats the skin while preparing a writing surface. Crace’s careful plotting, his clever use of perspectives, and his unswerving eye for both naturalistic and psychological detail all make for a nuanced and unsentimental exploration of individual and collective relationships to land, the environment, work and community. Harvest is also a poignant cautionary tale about what happens when the complex ties binding these things together start to come loose. From his generalised historical setting, Crace conjures a concrete and tangible world, while the implications of the novel’s events resonate far and wide, calling to mind many other stories about the displacement of people across time and space.
Girl at War – Sara Novic (Little, Brown)
In an incisive article on war reporting in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sara Novic says that “in this era of widespread unrest, the answers to critical ethical questions about the way wars are to be fought depend on the developed world’s understanding of life during wartime.” Her debut novel Girl at War begins with a sustained and increasingly terrifying depiction of just that.
We begin in Zagreb in the summer of 1991. A summer holiday has been cancelled because “the Serbs had blocked the roads to the sea, or at least that’s what everyone was saying.” Ten-year-old Ana is on an errand for a family friend when a familiar shopkeeper confusingly asks her to choose between Serbian and Croatian cigarettes. As war encroaches on daily life, Novic uses Ana’s child’s eye view to skillfully drip-feed the background context while creating an increasingly disturbing sense of altered normality. Ana and her friends play in bomb sites and air raid shelters. They overhear snippets of adult conversation and catch glimpses of news footage. They witness the arrival of haunted-looking refugees, one of whom talks of a man with a necklace strung with human ears. This sense of mounting threat builds across the first third of the book to a truly harrowing denouement that will leave Ana alone in a warzone.
At this point Novic shifts us forward ten years and we find Ana studying literature in New York. It would be hard for the novel to maintain its intensity after such an opening but the change in time and location in fact brings a new kind of urgency. We don’t yet know how Ana has made it to the United States and what has become of the people she left behind. However, in the intervening years, she has learned that people don’t really want to hear the truth about her wartime experiences. So, while outwardly “passing as an American”, Ana is plagued by traumatic memories and struggles to understand what she has been through and where she belongs. Here, Novic’s clever use of flashbacks not only reflects Ana’s state of mind, it also makes for incredibly compelling reading. Like our narrator, we want know what has happened and why, questions that drive the plot forward and culminate for Ana in a return to Croatia doesn’t so much tie up loose ends as tease out their frayed edges.
Girl at War is in one sense a coming-of-age novel, albeit one that is painfully attuned to the wider politics of its storytelling. Ana is warned when she gets back to Zagreb that “you don’t get to claim the war as your personal tragedy. Not here.” It is also a novel about exile and alienation. A returning emigrant, Ana finds herself already distanced from political realities in Croatia, which are recounted, perhaps with a weary cynicism, by someone who stayed:
‘To be considered for [EU] membership we’ve got to do all sorts of stuff to provide we’re ‘committed to peace.’ The cops had to turn in their guns. And we have to give up our war criminals.’
‘We have war criminals?’
‘So they say.’
‘So who says? The Cetniks?’
‘The UN. … And we’re not supposed to say Cetniks now. It’s derogatory.’
Such exposition hints that Novic is not expecting all her readers to be overly familiar with the historical background or contemporary political implications of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, but that’s not to say she’s willing to let her audience off the hook for not knowing either. She is scrupulously careful to allow space for different interpretations of events: “in the end the guilt of one side did not prove the innocence of the other.” Nevertheless, this is a novel that clearly wants its western readers to interrogate their relationships to this specific conflict and to distant conflicts more generally. At various points Ana rages against stereotypical views of the Balkans as “just inherently violent” and makes scathing criticisms of the EU, NATO and the UN during and after the war (“They videotaped Srebrenica”). Novic also highlights how Ana, who is living in New York in September 2001, experiences the attacks on the World Trade Centre and their aftermath differently to her university classmates:
The country was at war, but for most people the war was more an idea than an experience, and I felt something between anger and shame that Americans—that I—could sometimes ignore its impact for days at a time. … What war meant in America was so incongruous with what had happened in Croatia—with what must have been happening in Afghanistan—that it almost seemed a misuse of the word.
Thus, Novic adds a further voice to the growing collection of ‘post 9/11’ novels using contemporary US immigrant experiences to raise thorny questions about how, when and why the international ‘powers that be’ intervene, or fail to intervene, in conflicts across the world. But, for all its acute awareness of the bigger picture and its deft handling of historical and geographical scope, Girl at War is primarily a beautifully written and powerful personal story about family and friendship, loss and recovery. It is simultaneously full of despair and hope, anger and generosity. To have written such a novel at any age is a major achievement and to have published it at the age of twenty six, as Novic has, is little short of astonishing. She has woven together a stunningly impressive debut and, perhaps most importantly, she has given us a novel that reads like it needed to be written.