Manitoba·Review

Women wage war in new books from Sara Nović, Jon Krakauer, Mona Awad

Three books out in the last year put women on the front lines of wars, both real and metaphorical: against rape culture and the sexist legal system that supports it, against their own bodies and the culture that shames them, and with real machine guns against enemies who shatter their security.

Books explore battles real and metaphorical — with guns, against the legal system and against body shaming

Three books out in the last year take readers to the front lines of wars, both real and metaphorical: women waging war against rape culture and the sexist legal system that supports it, against their own bodies and the beauty culture that shames them, and, with real machine guns, against the enemies who destroy their homes and shatter their security.

Girl at War by Sara Nović is the story of a university student in Manhattan who escaped the civil war in Yugoslavia, where she learned to kill when she was just 10. (Random House Trade Paperbacks)
In Sara Nović's Girl at War, Anna Jurić is a university student in Manhattan who escaped the civil war in Yugoslavia.  But her survival came at a cost and to find any sense of peace, she must reconcile herself to the horrors she not only endured but also took part in. She starts lying about her background because she does not want to deal with the questions between "nosiness and concern" and the extreme discomfort her answers cause:

"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 harbour all the feelings of home."

The book starts when Anna is 10, and the war just means days off school, free rein to bike and explore with her best friend Luka and water fights around the relief pump the rare time water is flowing.

Then, in a single, heart-stopping moment, the ugly reality of the ethnic cleansing rips through Anna's family. She is left on her own, joins a rebel army and learns to kill to survive.

"I relished the power that seemed to run through the chamber of the weapon directly up into my own veins." Anna is 10.

Nović brings a war that is distant and convoluted for many westerners into sharp and painful focus as a story of survival. Anna has to rebuild her life on a practical level but also has to rebuild her sense of family, of safety and of self.

In Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Jon Krakauer delivers a piercing examination of an American college town's sexual assault crisis. (Doubleday)
The real life women at the centre of investigative journalist Jon Krakauer's piercing examination of an American college town's sexual assault crisis also have to rebuild their lives.

The women all knew the men who raped them. In many cases they were popular football players. The assaults were just the start of the young women's nightmares. 

In Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Jon Krakauer (Into Thin Air, Into the Wild) gives the victims a chance to tell their stories. And from police officers to lawyers to football fans in a town that worships athletes, strangers ripped those stories apart.

With his determined and tenacious reporting, Krakauer lets no one off the hook as he exposes how such a permissive rape culture is created and maintained.  He zeros in on poorly trained police officers who start the investigation with the presumption the victim is lying and a legal system that is stacked in favour of the accused. This may be an American legal system, but Canadians could learn a lot from this book.

Missoula is heavy on reporting. Krakauer digs deep into court documents, government investigations and scientific research. But just as importantly, he digs deep into the true heart of the story — the deeply ingrained misconceptions about consent, rape and how victims should behave.

Mona Awad's novel 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl explores how society judges our bodies as women. (Penguin Random House)
Judgment is also at the heart of Mona Awad's novel 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl: how society judges our bodies as women, but also how harshly we judge ourselves.

Awad's book is 13 chapters, almost 13 separate but connected short stories, following Lizzie from a self-conscious, overweight teenager, through years of self-hate, dieting and obsession, to a woman in her 30s who can't let go of the fear of losing control of her body.

The book has an overlay of dark humour, but ultimately is as unrelenting and obsessive as the main character.  Awad captures in her very style the prison many women live in as they struggle to accept their bodies and find not only peace and acceptance, but hopefully joy in who they are.