Issue No. 79
I was introduced to Sara Nović at the beginning of the Fall 2013 semester, in my capacity as a thesis advisor in the Columbia University M.F.A. program. I began, as I always do, by asking my advisee to tell me about her project. Sara said that she had been working for several years on a novel which juxtaposes a young Croatian girl’s experiences during the Yugoslav Wars with her later attempts to “pass as American” while attending college in New York City. There was just one problem: in the time between signing up and being paired with an advisor she’d sold the novel to Random House (as yet untitled, but due out in early 2015).
I advised her that this was not, strictly speaking, a problem. And yet it did raise a somewhat vexing question as to how proceed. An editor is nothing if not a kind of thesis advisor, and I didn’t think the novel needed two. So I asked Sara what else she was working on, and she said she had some short stories in various states of completion, and so we got to work.
Nović’s stories are sharp, dark, full of urgency and rich with the comedy of despair. (One is narrated by a Deaf teenage boy whose born-again mother attempts to have him faith-healed.) As you’ll see, the setting and concerns of “Notes on a War-Torn Childhood” resonate with the description of the novel given above, but it is not an excerpt.The story, told in distilled, nimble, haunting prose, begins simply: “I’m ten the night my house explodes.”
What follows is a vivid and bracing tale of survival, as Nović shows us the terrible swiftness with which normal life can be obliterated: a city becomes a hellscape, a child is forced to join a war: “Every morning we bike the wreckage formerly known as streets, each with one eye to the ground, pinpointing Četnik strongholds and reporting coordinates back to the Captain. […] They call me Red Sonja, which is a reference to a movie I’ve never seen, but one which they assure me is badass.”
Badass, indeed. Sara Nović’s is a powerful, original, and compelling new voice; one that I hope and expect will be with us for a long time, and which it is my privilege to recommend to you today.
Author, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever
Support Recommended Reading
By Sara Nović
Recommended by Justin Taylor
I’m ten the night my house explodes. The sound isn’t a sound, just a vibration so strong it rattles my chest. I come-to face down on the floor, impossibly unharmed, and pull myself on my elbows across the carpet and into the hallway. A section of the house—the part where my parents’ bedroom is supposed to be—is missing. I run. In the street, the pavement is warped from the treads of tanks that have plowed through the neighborhood. I spot a trench, jump down, and follow its rutted path toward the city center.
Deep underground in the public shelter I bypass the cluster of my classmates who are vying for their turn on the stationary bicycle that lights this airless cement box—surrogate playtime, a welcome distraction from boredom and fear. They let me cut the line, and I pedal fast until the lights glow full-strength and my joints stiffen with shock. It’s only when I stop that I notice the blood trickling from my ears and down my neck in thin red escape routes. Other people’s mothers ask me if I’m okay. I don’t like to talk about it.
People in the city are disappearing. People have been forced to walk east; people have become hemic vapor amidst the midnight explosions. We are fortunate they’ve blown up the TV tower, that we cannot turn on the news and see the images the rest of Europe is now viewing and ignoring: pictures of our neighbors, bald and emaciated in camps that the Serbian government is claiming, in the same broadcast, do not exist.