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The theater of war, the battlefield at home
on January 20, 2011
In this terse and bold book of eight interconnected stories featuring Fort Hood army wives, breakout author Siobhan Fallon invites readers to peek through the hazy base-house curtains into largely uncharted territory. She offers an intimate glimpse of the spouses and children left behind to cope when the men in the infantry battalion of 1-7 Cav are deployed to Iraq.
We've seen media pictures proffering the stalwart strength and Mona Lisa smiles of army wives, but we haven't been host to their private trials--of farewells, homecomings, and transitions. Fallon captures their mixed emotions and fears with a gritty realism, and reveals critical, vital moments in their insular and marginal lives. She glances sharply into the tearful deployment, the lonely absence, and the stirring homecoming. How the wives cope with these changes is a recurring theme.
This is fiction, but Fallon writes with authority: her husband, a major, was deployed in Iraq for two tours of duty while she lived in Fort Hood. She knows the depth of the cookie-cutter, thin-walled houses--they are occupied by courageous and terrified women with thick skins, empty beds, and tentative thoughts.
The wives in this book form a proxy family together, the FRG (Family Readiness group), where, for better or worse, they convene and connect. They bond in this dry and desolate patch of Central Texas, support each other, and wait for news of the front. Mingling with civilians off base is distressing. It's painful to watch a dad knock around a ball with his son, or a couple dining out and dancing cheek to cheek. Some of these wives have babies who haven't yet met their daddies. How they endure the complex emotions of separation drives the narrative and compels the reader.
As Fallon shows us, the time in limbo is often marked with dread and confusion. It can be a powerful change agent, mushroom their fear, or injure self-esteem, to name a few effects. It can dash a formerly positive body image, especially if anxiety and loneliness create eye bags and a gaunt complexion. The women in her stories often have sleep disturbances and eat erratically. One woman quells her insomnia by listening to her neighbor's routines through the permeable walls.
In the first story, Meg goes to the Commissary, eyes a raw slab of steak--the rivulets of fat, the sanguinary juices, the protruding bone--and imagines a mortal battle wound. The women wake up every morning and scan the Internet news for reports of ambushes and roadside bombs, wondering if their husbands are safe in their quarters or unrecognizably shattered in numberless pieces. Meanwhile, they have individual, separate concerns. Fallon kicks it up a notch with her story about a wife in remission from breast cancer, waiting to see the latest reports of her medical tests. In the meantime, her kids did not show up for school, and she has to deal with the embarrassment of soldiers on base assisting, investigating, and scrutinizing her actions that day.
And, what is it like to communicate with your loved one only through technology, to feel the unbearable absence of touch? To wait, and wait, time folding in on itself, or rolling out, while you cleave, living on emails, snail mail, and the rare skype. And, even when they return, the complex dynamics of adjustment and role reversal are stunning; the wives have been independent for so long that sharing a life again can be raw and awkward. Instead of joyful and warm, it may be glacial and fraught with erosion. All that alone time carves out multiple reflections and haunting desires. At least one wife has some lacerating news for her returning and wounded husband.
And, what is it like for the men, the soldiers and officers who have bravely committed this time to the safety and well being of their fellow infantrymen? They didn't sign up to divide their loyalties, to betray their families, but the quixotic beast of war invades the frontier of domestic life, too. Some of them sneak cell phones into their camp. One of the soldiers becomes enchanted with a comely foreign interpreter while on a mission to search for IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). Another soldier isn't sure if he is just paranoid or failed to perceive his wife's change of heart, and acts frantically on his fears. And some of them don't make it home. For those wives, it is the pain of the unknown, the moment of death that is now gone, that took their husband away. That image, the memories, and the disfigurement of grief remain.
Imagine, all alone, with a flashlight, tiptoeing in the dark inside a squat, yellow, dusty rectangular building, suddenly bumping up against a life. You emit a startled gasp. That's what these stories are like. Fallon's prose is stark and incandescent. There are no frills or filler necessary to embellish these candid characters and situations, and I have only hinted at a few. The passages are powerful and lean, the nuances chilling and urgent, and the dénouements radiate with ambiguity. These are bracing mini-portraits with mega-wattage. When you hear Fort Hood mentioned in the news again, it will palpate with familiarity. You'll feel a jolt. It will never again be just that abstract military post in Texas. You'll know when the men are gone.
This review is based on an advanced reading copy I received from the publisher in a lottery giveaway. I was not asked to write a review or praise this book. Rather, I was compelled by the piercing and captivating stories themselves.