When Alex from Soccer, Translated mentioned Girl at War by Sara Novic in the comments of The Weekly Wonder of The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch, I had to read the book. But it only after I read it that I realized that Alex’s recommendation was pretty good and I asked him to compare the two books for a post.
Girl at War by Sara Novic and The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch share many thematic similarities, and even a few stylistic ones, but they are nevertheless written in very different ways and are likely to be appreciated by very different audiences. Both novels deal with the heavy topic of war, and specifically the fates of female children during war times; neither shies away from harsh truths, and both have moments that are difficult to read.
Girl at War examines the life of Ana Juric, a 10-year-old in Zagreb, Croatia, when the Yugoslav civil war broke out. Ana’s sickly younger sister is sent out of the country as the war worsens, while Ana, unable to escape, ends up drawn into the conflict as a child soldier.
In The Small Backs of Children, a nameless girl is orphaned by a nameless war in Eastern Europe, with the exact moment when she flees the bomb that killed her family captured in an award-winning photograph.
Both Novic and Yuknavitch use perspective shifts to move the story along. However, Novic never takes her lens off Ana, with the story cutting between Ana’s childhood in war-torn Croatia and her college years in the United States, where she has joined her now thoroughly-Americanized sister. Yuknavitch moves the perspective from one character to another, and like The Girl, they are all identified by their professions (the exception being The Girl) rather than names: The Writer, The Photographer, The Poet.
The Small Backs of Children is written in the corporeal style, with a focus on the body. Many scenes are defined by what is happening to the characters’ bodies: the focus is on the physical. While in Girl at War, the focus is often inside Ana’s head.
A persistent theme running through Girl at War is identification and memory, as Ana struggles to reconcile her past and her present, while her sister Rahela, who left Croatia too young to remember her native country, has even shed her given name and now goes by Rachel. In The Small Backs of Children, there is a thread of anonymity running through everything, with the characters’ identities subsumed by their professions.
Both books are also influenced strongly by the experiences of their authors. Novic’s own conflicting identities – the 28-year-old grew up in both Croatia and the U.S. and was a child when the war broke out – add veracity to Ana’s voice. Ana’s feelings of isolation when she reunites with her sister, only to be separated by a language barrier, also has a parallel in Novic, who is deaf and must navigate between Deaf and hearing cultures. Yuknavitch, who wrote in her memoir of the childhood abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, writes vividly about the horrific experiences The Girl undergoes. Yuknavitch also draws on her own experience as she plunges the reader into The Writer’s breakdown after the death of her daughter.
If you’re looking for a well-written and moving book, either Girl at War or The Small Backs of Children is a good choice. But be aware that The Small Backs of Children experiments with the structure of the story in a way that can be initially disorienting, but the unique style contributes to the emotional impact of the work. The corporeal style also means it is perhaps not the best choice for the squeamish, but if you can get through some difficult scenes the payoff is worth it. Girl at War is less brash, but it has a quiet power that will leave you thinking long after you read the final page.
Thanks Alex. Please do check out Soccer, Translated. It’s an amazing blog.
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