I’m not good at comparing things. That was always my biggest struggle with literature assignments in school: “Describe the similarities between Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Uhh… depression? I didn’t like them? (Actually, Meta was alright.) Mmk.
So—here’s my best stab for comparisons to You Know When the Men Are Gone. If you like The Things They Carried, you’ll probably like this. Is that just because they’re both short-story collections about war? Or just because I liked both of them? Probably.
Yes, YKWtMAG is a short-story collection about war. But unlike TTTC, they’re not stories about a warzone. With one exception (“Camp Liberty”), the stories deal with domestic settings, centering around the army base of Fort Hood, Texas (a real base where author Siobhan Fallon lived while her husband was on two tours of duty). The stories’ main characters all either wives or soldiers home from Iraq for various reasons.
The underlying theme throughout all eight stories are romantic relationships during wartime. The stories themselves are anything but romantic in its traditional sappy form; Fallon pulls no punches in addressing the hard-hitting problems facing army couples during wartime. A 20-year-old is permanently disabled by a bomb and faces his wife’s abandonment on his return home. Waiting for her husband’s tour to be over, a woman babysits the children of a neighbor while their foreign-born mother carries on an affair and cries for her homeland. A cancer survivor’s children run away while her husband faces the stigma of remaining on base. (All the couples are composed of a man in the army and a woman in Fort Hood.)
This book is short. The stories are short. And yet Fallon manages to pack tremendous emotional range into each one, making every word count, saying nothing that doesn’t absolutely need saying. Some of the characters’ reactions to their circumstances are described so minimally that I found myself wondering about them, but completely in a positive way (not “Geez, I’m so confused by this,” but “Oh my God—I wonder what’s going through her head right now. Hey… what would be going through my head right now if that was me?”).
Fallon’s writing is simultaneously delicate and forceful, as are the issues she writes about. There’s no good answer for how a man can return to his wife’s normal life after the atrocities he’s seen at war. There’s no fair solution to a woman who feels abandoned and lost in her everyday life without her partner. While having absolutely no personal experience with anything covered in YKWtMAG, I felt strongly connected to the characters and deeply interested in the difficulties they faced.
So, now that my review is done, I realize that YKWtMAG and TTTC have, thematically, almost nothing in common. Oh well. You should still read both.