Thursday, April 14, 2011

You Know When the Men Are Gone




I'm becoming firmly lodged in the habit of walking through the library and grabbing random books off the shelf to check out and take home. I try to give each book three chapters before moving on to greener pastures, but every once in a while I open an unfamiliar book and two hours later I'm still sitting there, completely swept away. Don't you love it when that happens? 

Last Sunday was a quiet afternoon at our house. With the girls playing "school" in the basement, and Jeremy asleep next to me, I opened Siobhan Fallon's You Know When the Men Are Gone. I'd like to share the opening page:

In Fort Hood housing, like all army housing, you get used to hearing through the walls. You learn your neighbors' routines: when and if they gargle and brush their teeth; how often they go to the bathroom or shower; whether they snore or cry themselves to sleep. You learn too much. And you learn to move quietly through your own small domain.

You also know when the men are gone. No more boots stomping above, no more football games turned up too high, and, best of all, no more front doors 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.

This collection of short stories is the most vivid account of what modern day warfare feels like for the American families and deployed soldiers who are living through it. And let me be clear that the stories are not political; I never sensed a pro-war or antiwar agenda from the author because she isn't writing about the conflict. She is writing about the peculiar set of conditions, the heartbreaks, insecurities, and tender mercies experienced by military families in America today. Some of the stories are written from the perspective of deployed soldiers, while others describe what happens to the women and children who are left behind, while the men are gone.

I couldn't put the book down. Every story is exciting and nerve-racking for its own set of reasons. As a reader I couldn't turn the page fast enough, and as a writer I kept pausing and slowing down to examine how Fallon was "doing it." She has exactly the right amount of thoughtful description, emotional immediacy, and she never deviates from the action of the story, thus forcing readers like me to sit on the couch and consume the entire book in practically one sitting.

I like lots of books, but I loved this book. From idea to execution, You Know When the Men Are Gone is exactly what I like to read, and a good model for how I hope to someday write. I suppose this is solid proof that my random selection method at the library is working!

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