- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

YOU KNOW WHEN THE MEN ARE GONE
By Siobhan Fallon
Putnam, $23.95, 240 pages

In a haunting way, this book captures the war that is fought at home and the emotional stress undergone by the women who also serve as they wait. It is laid out in simple, crisp prose in the setting of a military base and is told by a woman who is the wife of an Army major and knows whereof she writes. As Siobhan Fallon puts it, “You get used to hearing through the walls. You learn too much. You know when the men are gone. And without them there is a sense of muted silence, a sense of muted life.”

Yet life goes on within the thin walls of the military housing at Fort Hood, Texas, where children wait for their fathers to come home - and leave again - and wives hope they will come home and will not be too much changed by what they have experienced.

In the military houses, tension is maintained by the constant checking of the Internet for information and statistics about roadside bombs and where they exploded and whom they might have killed. There is the search for the names of divisions and battalions that are linked to familiar names who may be among the injured or dead. There is the lingering anxiety that permeates the base, where wives form a circle of support to cope with disaster as well as with the accompanying problems of boredom, child care and flares of malicious gossip.

Ms. Fallon has drawn in black and white a panorama of ordinary people living the extraordinary life of the military. Her own experience as an Army wife gives strength and reality to this series of vignettes and those who people them.

There is Meg, strong and self-reliant, who keeps to herself what she knows about her neighbor until the moment when it becomes immutable fact. There is a man dedicated to his military career who emerges from a personal tragedy in the desert to find that going home has become all that matters to him. There is Ellen, the wife in remission from cancer who is in her own kind of combat with her 14-year-old daughter, Delia.

As she struggles through multiple crises, she comes to acknowledge that she and her daughter are both victims who must try to console each other. Delia, she realizes, is as terrified as her mother in a setting where missing her father is exacerbated by the fear of losing her mother.

Ms. Fallon skillfully re-creates the dark moments when the blue buses take the men away and those left behind can look toward “ten and a half months marked by a long and ominous silence.” That silence is every wife’s nightmare as she waits tensely for e-mails or calls in what is called a “comms blackout,” meaning no news is coming through. And when the message is communicated, it can carry word of disaster about Alpha Company.

Almost as devastating are messages that signal the crumbling of a relationship by hints of infidelity at home or abroad. The reality of another woman is something some wives at the base learn to live with. There is a grimly philosophical reaction from a wife who decides she must accept the events of the year her husband spent in Baghdad.

“There were things he had seen and done that he would tell her about in a matter of fact way and there were things she would not hear about. But that year was over and he had come home to her. And her decision is that she doesn’t want to know.”

Then there is the terrible bitterness suffered by Kit, a man who comes back to a wife to whom he is devoted and around whom he has built his dreams of coming home, only to find she can’t cope with life on the base any longer and is leaving him. What makes it so much worse is that there is no other man. She insists she still loves Kit. She just wants out of the military life. And in a bleak linkage of events, the author brings Kit’s story full circle when he meets a widow who is full of rage that her husband died saving him in battle.

There is a Hitchcockian flavor to the revenge taken by Nick, who comes home on a clandestine leave, creeps into his house unseen and takes up residence in the basement, where he spies on his wife. Nick desperately wants to be proved wrong about his suspicions of her infidelity and even envisions how he will joyfully surprise his family if he finds his dark thoughts are unfounded. But they aren’t. A flashing knife brings an end.

The author has created a fragile human network in which her characters are always in a waiting state and what they are anticipating is often the worst. In a note, Ms Fallon writes that she “tried to create a window into the world of the military base,” where thoughts and hopes are focused on loved ones 5,000 miles away. The book rings with the sad truth of memory and reality, and it is a small gem.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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