Thankfully Reading Weekend, but thankfully I did spend some time reading! Thursday evening I wrapped up the fantabulagorgeous, You Know When the Men Are Gone, by Siobhan Fallon, and I'm gonna gush. Just get ready.
First off, an embarrassing admission: I can't say that I've ever read a book about military families or military service in general! I have no idea how I've gone this long without reading one, but there it is. I suppose this is one of very few books I could've picked up from my stacks that lands squarely outside my "norm". For that reason, I had a bit of doubt going into this book, but I could not be happier that I picked it up.
You Know When the Men Are Gone is a collection of interrelated short stories about military families and the struggles that come along with service and deployment. Set in Killeen, TX (a few hours from where I live in Texas), the stories explore multiple facets of the military life. Some of the stories deal with the soldiers' feelings in combat, their longing for a normal life at home, and the struggles their wives and families experience stateside, waiting. Other stories tackle the problems soldiers encounter accepting a civilian life and a return to "normal." There's fidelity and infidelity, heartbreak, disappointment, triumph -- and inevitably -- death.
One of my favorite stories in the book is "The Last Stand." Specialist Kit Murphy arrives back in the United States with a group of 12 other injured soldiers. He's saved from a roadside explosion when the body of his Sergeant shields him from the flames and debris, but his foot is severely injured, and he undergoes a series of surgeries overseas. Kit and his wife, Helena, are in their early twenties, high school sweethearts turned man and wife. Kit isn't sure Helena will even know he's arriving home, as he's had a hard time getting hold of her on the phone, and he's known the distance between them is growing. Through the course of the story, the reader discovers Helena suffered a miscarriage while Kit was deployed, and that heartbreak, compounded with his physical absence, have driven them irrevocably apart. Like so many of the brokenhearted, Kit calls up some of his fellow soliders and spends a night drinking and further angering his injured foot.
It's a frustrating, realistic story. Anyone who's ever been heartbroken can relate, but the tragedy of it is turned up to a different level because of the characters' distance from each other, their lack of emotional maturity, and their real need for each other. I got the feeling that if the circumstances had been just slightly different for one or both, they would've been fine. I felt the same way about a number of the stories. So many dealt with near misses, bad timing, and small lies. For many these characters, situations and wrongs would've been redeemed with just a slight twist of fate.
Don't get me wrong, not all of the stories are sad. In several, the husbands and wives are able to find some common ground in small moments and simple things, and they discover a way to carry on amidst all the worry and chaos of wartime.
While I loved this book, some of the stories were less successful than others. The title story, and the first one in the collection, was probably one of my least favorite. Meg Brady lives next door to Natalya Torres in base apartment housing and becomes unusually entangled in her neighbor's life. Natalya is a bit of a spectacle and a source of gossip for the base wives. She walks an obnoxious dog in an evening coat, barely speaks English, and breaks some of the unspoken rules of the base, like asking her fellow wives for money. She also goes out a couple times a week, leaving her two young children home alone until all hours of the night. Is Natalya cheating on her husband? Is she a fit mother? What the heck is her problem? All questions Meg Brady finds herself listening for through the wall, until the night Natalya asks Meg to babysit and everything takes a turn.
While the premise of this particular story was fine, and it was enough to draw me in, Fallon's writerly voice seemed a little muddled in this one compared to other stories. I had a hard time believing Meg and her relationships with the other wives, her fascination with Natalya. If any of you decide to read this book and find yourself feeling the way I did about this story, PRESS ON! It's worth it.
Another part of this book I really enjoyed was the small crossovers between stories. A character who makes a cameo in one story may be the star of the next. Such was the case with "The Last Stand" I mentioned above. In another story late in the collection, we learn more about the Sergeant whose body saved Kit Murphy from the explosion. The story is called "Gold Star" and introduces Sergeant Schaeffer's wife, Josie, and the emotional fallout from her husband's untimely death. Kit also makes another appearance in this story to tell Josie about the circumstances of her husband's passing.
The crossovers in You Know When the Men Are Gone would likely appeal to those readers who favor novels. The repeated characters lend a continuity to the book that made it feel more connected than most short story collections. The characters and the strong thematic ties all make this book very cohesive and involving. Don't poo-poo the short stories, people!
Last, but most certainly not least, Fallon is a killer with words. She really does have a knack for choosing analogies that are a punch in the gut. In "Remission" a mother is looking for her daughter and son -- both gone missing when they were supposed to have been in school. As she searches, she thinks of the changes in her daughter:
She kept looking for a long blond ponytail and then having to remind herself that Delia was no longer blond. She had come home last month with her long blond hair shorn and dyed black. It still shocked Ellen every time she looked at Delia; it still made her think, That is not my daughter. The blond child had never wanted to miss school, even when she was seven and dappled with chicken pox. Now Ellen was searching for someone else, someone sullen and unpredictable. A makeshift roadside explosive device just waiting to go off.Fallon's is straightforward, concise writing, and it works with the emotional tones in these stories.
I should probably also mention that Fallon herself is a member of a military family. If you'd like an introduction, you should most definitely check out her blog. Her family currently resides in the Jordan with plans to return to the U.S. in January.
You Know When the Men Are Gone is one of the most affecting books I've read this year, and it was a wonderful surprise. If you have the opportunity to read it, do!
Snuggle -- Skewer
Pub. Date: January 2011
Publisher: Amy Einhorn Books
Source: Purchased by yours truly.