Thursday, May 5, 2011

You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon

It would be almost impossible for anyone reading Siobhan Fallon’s gripping interrelated short stories to escape without asking what to do to respect, understand and support our military and their families in the suffering and life-altering experiences they  bear for us.  Bearing witness means experiencing the life of another then taking compassionate action.  Fallon’s tales weave a tapestry so colorful and with such intricate detail that they force the reader to become a part of the Fort Hood, Texas community. The question the reader must ask after finishing this book thus becomes, “what should I do to support these men and women and their families.”  When a work of fiction makes the reader feel compelled to mail copies to the Pentagon and to the President and Congress, it has hit the mark. Regardless of political leanings, everyone must read this book to understand just what we are asking our soldiers to bear in our name.

To use the word insightful to describe Fallon’s keen perception of both those who return from horror to those who lose the ones they love would be a gross understatement.  Fallon’s stories are perspicacious, that is, they are both discerning and acutely perceptive.  Fallon paints word pictures that are tight yet so vivid that they make the scenes glow in Technicolor.  In the story “Gold Star,” Josie Schaeffer is driving around the commissary parking lot looking for a space.  “She had forgotten it was payday.”  That sentence foreshadows what’s to come when “Checking her watch again, she finally pulled into the empty Gold Star Family designated spot in front.  She waited a moment, peering at herself in the mirror, composing her face into what she imagined an ordinary face looked like, tugging her mouth into a smile but then giving up. She knew the spouses walking by with their loaded carts were hesitating, trying not to stare into Josie’s window, trading lifted eyebrows with the other women passing.”   This is the mark of an exceptional writer; she shows us who and what Josie is instead of telling us.  Thus the reader enters the life of a Gold Star widow and begins to perceive what her world encompasses.

Fallon details the quotidian sounds of the ordinary on a military base – the thump of boots stomping and of “football games turned up too high” followed by the relative silence after massive units ship out.  She presents the fears of the women left behind – not just fears of husbands that might be injured or killed but fears that they might find comfort in another woman’s arms.  She inserts the reader into the trauma of the “lucky” ones who return looking like they haven’t been damaged.  Fallon demonstrates the psychological toll of Iraq and Afghanistan with the impact that Tim O’Brien brought to the Viet Nam War in The Things They Carried.  She forces the reader to look beyond the headlines yet she does it in such a sensitive and tender manner that it’s bearable.  This book is not depressing; it is realistic and compassionate. It’s also something of a page-turner which seems like an oxymoron as the reader must ponder what’s read.  But it’s so compelling that you simply can’t wait to see what happens next so thinking about what happens takes place as you put down the book.  It haunts you as you brush your teeth and for months after whenever Afghanistan or Iraq flash by on your television screen.
It’s surprising that this is Fallon’s debut as she’s such a polished and wise writer.  She’s used her experiences living at Fort Hood while her husband, an Army major, served two tours in Iraq and has translated them in to something universal that’s a gift to all readers.

Many book clubs don’t select short stories for discussion as they find it difficult to discuss a variety of plots.  This collection of interrelated stories would be exceptional for book clubs as there are so many challenging topics to explore and as the stories are all related by place and by military service.

Summing it Up:   Regardless of whether you ever read short stories, you must read this book.  Yes, it’s sad; yes it’ll make you ponder things that aren’t easy but in the end you’ll be thankful that you shared this tender experience.  This book will change you; it probably won’t change your political beliefs about war but it will change your feelings about those who serve to preserve your safety. 

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Gourmet, Tapas, Book Club
Publication date: January 20, 2011

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