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May 12, 2015

Book Notes - Sara Nović "Girl at War"

Girl at War

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Sara Novic's novel Girl at War is an engaging and insightful debut about the Yugoslavian civil war from a child's perspective, an unforgettable, crisply written, and deeply moving book.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Nović’s important debut brings painfully home the jarring fact that what happens in today’s headlines on a daily basis—the atrocities of wars in Africa and the Mideast—is neither new nor even particularly the worst that humankind can commit. Take it from ten-year-old Ana Juric, conscripted into the Yugoslav civil war in the early 1990s by the bad luck of simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. . . . . As Nović gradually reveals, you can take the girl out of the war zone, but you can’t take the war zone out of the girl. By the time Ana becomes a student at a New York university, all that violence has been bottled up inside her head for a decade. Thanks to Novic’s considerable skill, Ana’s return visit to her homeland and her past is nearly as cathartic for the reader as it is for Ana."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In her own words, here is Sara Nović's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Girl at War:


Some people probably think it's weird that a Deaf chick is making a playlist for her novel. Maybe it is; I'll admit me sitting at my desk with my giant, (red) bass-pumping headphones atop my hearing aids is not exactly my least weird look. Then again, I don't know any deaf people who have the Mr. Holland's Opus kind of relationship with music that hearing people love to tragicize.

Personally, having experienced progressive hearing loss, I did enjoy music in the traditional way. I also grew up in a household where my parents owned records and cassettes and CDs like I now own books—overflowing from shelves, annexing every spare corner. When I'd run out of things to read I often read the liner notes of these albums; as a result I've memorized a catalogue of lyrics across genres. When thinking about music for my first novel Girl at War, I focused a lot on lyrics, as well as the rhythm and feel of a song, with some ear support from the hearing set.

Beginning in Croatia during the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, Girl at War is about war, of course, but it's also about history, identity, and figuring out what it means to be at home in the world. These songs are what I imagine to be the soundtrack to that process for the narrator, Ana.

Part 1

"Ants Marching" Dave Matthews Band
Though it was released in 1995, for me Under the Table and Dreaming still has the early 90's feel that captures this carefree moment in Ana's childhood before the war starts, where she has freedom to roam the city.

"The Laws Have Changed" The New Pornographers
One thing that sets the war in Zagreb apart is that the transformation to wartime was kind of a slow burn. Though Ana and her friends switch from playing football to war games after school, they're still playing, so the upbeatness of this song feels right for that transitional period.

"Idioteque" Radiohead
The first air raid is a turning point for the people of Zagreb, though they still haven't seen the worst of the war, as depicted in the opening lines of this song: "Who's in a bunker? / I've seen too much / I haven't seen enough."

"Woods" Bon Iver
There's quite a violent scene at the end of this section of the book that I think is best carried out in silence. But in the immediate aftermath I envision this song. I came across it a while ago by accident, on a Spotify shuffle run. Because it had no bassline I was about to skip through, but, noticing the title, I read the lyrics and realized that it was quite representative of Ana's experience. The lack of a rhythm feels jarring, a question of where to go next, and reminiscent of silenced heartbeats. In keeping with family tradition, I used my little sister as a guinea pig and played her the song. (She's also read this book more than any other human.) She burst into tears, so I knew it was a keeper.

Part 2

"Wait it Out" Imogen Heap
I know; I know—the opening lines of this song area are not exactly subtle. A few of these Part 2 picks are on the angsty side. But, like the rest of the artists in this section, I have a nostalgia-shaped soft spot for Imogen Heap; these are the songs that carried me into adulthood and I needed them so much that I spent many evenings ripping them from internet to CD, then recording them to cassette tapes so could play them my car. Like Ana, I was trying to work out where I fit and what I was supposed be doing with my life. And with respect to Ana's trauma, the latter half of the first verse is particularly resonant: "Pain on pain on play repeating / with a backup makeshift life in waiting."

"Happier" Guster
This song, for me, characterizes the communication breakdown between Ana and her American friends and family, and the decision she has to make to face her past.

"Senegal Fast Food" Amadou & Mariam
I don't speak French, so this pick is based solely on the rhythm of the song, which for me encapsulates that feeling of trying to realign yourself with the cadence of a city from which you've been away for a long time.

"Graceland" Paul Simon
The ultimate road trip song (about a road trip). Plus, you'd catch it on the early 00s Croatian airwaves pretty frequently.

"Daylight Again" Crosby, Stills & Nash
Different civil war, same feeling of a place being haunted by its history.

Part 3

"Sympathy for the Devil" The Rolling Stones
I've always thought this song is the epitome of badass, and it's what plays in my head when Ana enters what she calls the "nicotine haze" of the Safe House for the first time. As Ana takes a more active role in the war, the lines between good and evil are increasingly blurry, and this song quite literally embodies that complexity.

"Death Comes Calling" Everlast + "Sunshowers" MIA
Manufactured bravado is an important part of child soldierdom—in nearly every instance, hip-hop music and drugs play a key role in teaching children to kill. Though neither of these songs existed during Ana's war, both reference childhood violence. MIA's controversial reference to the PLO is especially resonant here, given that the fighting in this section of the book is mainly between paramilitary rebel groups.

"Shelter from the Storm" Bob Dylan
Another classic travelling song, redolent of the series of journeys on which Ana embarks, and the people who provide refuge along the way.

Part 4

"Blindsided" Bon Iver
On returning to (the remains of) a familiar place: "Back down, down to the downtown / Down to the lockdown / Boards, nails lie around / I crouch like a crow / …/ For the agony I'd rather know / Cause I'm blinded / I am blindsided / Peek in / Into the peer in/ I'm not really like this."

"Krcma" Mile Kitić, DJ Rade11 Remix / "Iz Dana u Dan" Elemental
Hip-hop bravado remained an important component of the cultural landscape in postwar Croatia, in part as the country aligned itself with Western political ideologies, and in part as a ready-made vehicle through which to express dissatisfaction with the state of the new country. After the war, folk-techno mashups became popular music—remixes of original Mediterranean or Muslim melodies overlaid with House beats that Ana's best friend, Luka, terms a "cultural ceasefire." This one is a remix of a Bosnian song, complete with "badass" album cover.

Elemental also took on postwar poverty, corruption, and the struggles of reconstruction in their song "From Day to Day"—"Where are we now? / F**k the life in which we buy food with credit cards […] / We're just living day to day / With every dream long ago erased / Who should I ask, my brother? / Who can give me answers? / Tell me anything except / That it could've been worse."

"Strawberry Swing" Coldplay
The first time I took my little sister to Croatia, we listened to this song on the drive from Zagreb up to Prague on repeat pretty much the whole way. The return to a calm, even meter, along with images of cool water and a blue sky, seem a perfect end to the music of this book.


Sara Nović and Girl at War links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

BookPage interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)


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