Once upon a time, my husband (very early in our dating life) expressed his desire to join the military. Two of his best friends were in the Air Force ROTC and they loved it. I went into a panic attack trying to imagine myself as a military spouse and knew deep down that that life was too much for me. I’m a worry wart by nature and already had trouble breathing when I knew he was riding long distance on a motorcycle – there’s no way I could handle him being deployed to a war zone 7000 miles away. Thankfully, he decided to be a CPA instead, but since that moment I’ve always had the utmost respect for the men, women, children, and other loved ones soldiers leave behind.
Siobhan Fallon is one of those spouses – her husband has been deployed to the Middle East on three occasions and they have most recently been stationed in Jordan as a family. Her debut novel is a collection of 8 fictional stories centered around families at Fort Hood, Texas dealing with the deployment and subsequent return home of their husbands, fathers, and sons.
You also know when the men are gone. No more boots stomping above, no more football games slamming before dawn as they trudge out for their early formation, sneakers on metal stairs, cars starting, shouts to the windows above to throw down their gloves on cold desert mornings. Babies still cry, telephones ring, Saturday morning cartoons screech, but without the men, there is a sense of muted silence, a sense of muted life.
Fallon is great at creating a very emotional atmosphere. Within just a few paragraphs of each story you’ll find yourself affected and deeply invested in each story’s outcome. The unfortunate consequence of your investment is that none of the stories actually has a proper ending – we’re always left rather ambiguously wondering what happens next, which for myself was frustrating. Once or twice would have been acceptable, but not each story. Knowing that Fallon has her MFA, I almost wonder if she were taught to do this in her studies because it feels like something an MFA program would teach. But if she did in fact learn this technique in school, then the abrupt endings are done on purpose and have some sort of meaning. I suppose they could represent how it might feel to have your spouse, a parent, or a child deployed to a far off war suddenly. The upheaval the family left behind feels and the uncertainty of how things will end. I could see this being a poignant literary device, but after 8 times it just sort of felt like a gimmick and cheapened the experience.
Conversely, the fact that you want to know what happens, that you are so heavily entrenched in the welfare of each family speaks to Fallon’s writing ability and her talent at capturing the nuances of her particular life experiences. Each of the stories could be fully fleshed out into amazing full length novels.
I loved that Fallon’s portrayal of the military doesn’t shy away from showing ugly truths and harsh realities. Obviously, military life is not a cake walk and the physical, mental, and emotional sacrifices that all military families endure need to be better understood and respected by those of us who live on the outside. Some readers have been angered by Fallon’s treatment, citing a lack of patriotism, like she’s spreading some sort of unseemly gossip. I see it quite differently. When you read these stories, they don’t make you scoff at the military – they make you thankful for your freedoms and the men and women who sacrifice so much so that we can live our nice cushy lives. They’ll make you proud to be an American without playing into war politics and remind you to thank soldiers for their service when you see them in uniform.
I would have enjoyed seeing a family where the wife went to war. I know that most soldiers are men, but plenty of women serve as well. Fallon was asked why she didn’t include such a perspective and she claimed she wanted to but that no particular character really came alive for her to write adequately. One of the most striking stories for me personally involved a soldier not being deployed with his company because his wife had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. Seeing how cold the family was treated by others on base because he had ‘dodged’ the deployment was shocking. They had children who could have been orphaned! And I defy all readers not to ball like a baby during the final piece, my favorite and a perfect way to end the collection.
You Know When the Men Are Gone (great title, by the way) is a book I’d recommend to anyone wanting a look inside military families – so often war can seem so foreign to us in America because they are fought so far away – this collection makes you face facts and brings the brave men and women closer to home. And it doesn’t matter if you’re pro-war or anti-war, you just have to be pro-human to enjoy! Not a perfect first novel, but a promising start for Fallon. I also recommend checking out her website. She writes a personal blog and has several great posts on life in the Middle East. I particularly enjoyed her take on visiting Saudi Arabia as a woman.
Coming up this week are my reviews for Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Bossypants by Tina Fey, and Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.
Note: I won You Know When the Men Are Gone through the Goodreads First Reads program. The book was provided by the publisher, Penguin Group (USA).