Set in Fort Hood, Texas, Siobhan Fallon’s eight stories revolve around the separation between military men posted in Iraq and their loved ones back home. These are powerful, moving stories. Every day the women left behind wonder if this is the day they get the worst possible news, and fear as well that their men are unfaithful abroad. The men in combat constantly worry about whether they will have families to return to, and sometimes they wonder if they want
to return to the families or relationships they have. Fallon makes the fears of all her characters palpable. And it is mostly fears that are her primary focus.
A warrant officer uses his leave to spy on his wife, expecting to find infidelity. A woman finds a suspect e-mail sent to her husband by a woman. Can she believe her husband’s denials?
The harm that comes to soldiers affects their loved ones. An injured soldier wonders whether his wife will accept him. A widow struggles to cope with her loss. Was her dead husband really a hero or just another casualty? Being with family at all is hard for one soldier who yearns to be back with his men, taking care of them. Wives struggle to communicate with war-changed husbands.
She bit her lip and wondered if this was the sum of a marriage, wordless recriminations or reconciliations, every breath either striving against or toward the other person, each second a decision to exert or abdicate the self.
But war is not the only source of pain and mortal peril. One mother must contend with a rebellious teen daughter while wondering if her breast cancer has metastasized.
There was a time limit on a child’s affection, that each month, week, day whittled away at it until he, too, would stretch and grow out of childhood and into something prickly and strange.
The women on the base have to deal with each others problems, as well as their own. One lonely wife is clearly not taking proper care of her children, is going out at night, leaving them alone. What should her peers pass on, keep secret?
Fallon uses some nice, taut imagery but does not overdo it. Surfers battling rough surf reflect the difficulty faced by a couple in turmoil. An original version of The Little Mermaid
echoes an injured soldier’s return home.
Fallon offers insights and observations beyond the immediate family concerns. In a particularly compelling tale, a soldier is assigned a female interpreter, and changes as a result.
No one notices the women in this country and therefore no one notices how much the women notice.
Fallon also passes along information that was news to me about the rights of women under Saddam.
She adds details of life on a military base, the social lives of the army wives, about base housing, regulations about things like how high your grass can grow before you get fined, the significance of gold stars. She should know, having written from personal experience.
I have two disappointments with this book. By their nature short stories leave us just when we are settling in with characters. Fallon is quick to engage but the medium is limiting. Also, I would like for this to have been a longer collection. It is a bit small caliber at 141 pps. But what there is is very high quality.
I was reminded while reading this of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried
getting at the whole by piecing together parts. (Yes, I learned that there was a reference to O’Brien in the promotional copy, but I came to this on my own, without having read that) While this may not rise to the level of that classic, it is a finely crafted collection and I look forward to reading more from this talented writer.