I don’t think I quite understood how insular the world is for the people left behind when the men go off to war. I never stopped to think about the casualties in the form of relationships, missed childbirths, and anniversaries uncelebrated. Siobhan Fallon captures the loneliness that comes from empty beds, dusty closets, and broken hearts. Even though my own father served in the military, all of the stories that he tells are far away and quiet, as though submerged beneath a layer of time that he refuses to slough off. He doesn’t want to remember what happened. But the women and children left behind, sometimes abandoned, don’t have the luxury of forgetting.
While reading You Know When the Men are Gone, the first thing that I was struck by was the beauty of Fallon’s writing. There were several instances in the book where I marked a passage simply for the articulate nature of the metaphor or imagery. It’s interesting the way that the story flowed together through different vignettes, windows into different families of Fort Hood. It didn’t make sense at first that the stories would thread together, but as the characters converged and the plot emerged, I was drawn into the book.
I will say that it took me a few chapters to really get into the story. It starts a little slowly, and I originally was disinterested in the side characters like Natalya and her children than I was in protagonists like Meg. Who wouldn’t be when Natalya is described as
She turned to Meg. It was hard to take her stare, as if all of the makeup and jewelry in the past has been a filter and now Meg aws looking directly at the sun.
What did draw me into the story of Meg and Jeremy were beautifully presented passages like:
As she handled baby pictures, high school diplomas, Thomas Kinkade prints, she imagined framing her husband’s letters. They were coated with fine dust and words full of desire, as if Jeremy and she were courting again, unused to each other, needing those teenage assurances, hearts doodled on the corners of the page, whispers of undying love.
At first, each of the stories seems to end on a positive note, too cheerful for the stressful situations each couple is subjected to. But as the stories and time went on, the endings became more maudlin, less hopeful. While it was sad, I did appreciate the harsh reality that someone’s happy ending is another’s demise.
My favorite story in the novel is “The Last Stand”. It marks a turn in the novel from hopeful to helplessness, and Kit’s devastation made my heart hurt for him. That was redoubled in the last story. The very last lines of the novel were especially poignant, tying together the strands of individual stories and weaving them into the tale of what happens when the men go to war:
After a dazed moment, Specialist Kit Murphy put his arms loosely around her and Josie Schaeffer clung to him, knowing this man was not her husband, that her husband was never coming back, but for now she was as close to him as she could get and she would not let him go.
I truly did enjoy this novel the further I got into it. I give it a solid 7/10, though I don’t know if I would reread it.
Join me next week when I get into The Merciless III and possessed high schoolers!