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“You Know When the Men Are Gone” by Siobhan Fallon

Title: You Know When the Men Are Gone
Author: Siobhan Fallon
ISBN: 9780399157202
Pages: 240
Release date: January 20, 2011
Publisher: Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam
Genre: Fiction (short story)
Format: ARC
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Rating: 3 out of 5

Quick and dirty: Nuanced, intriguing glances into the private lives of soldiers and those they leave behind.
Possible theme song: “16 by 32” by The Decemberists
My favorite story: “Leave”
Reason I posted it today: I couldn’t post it on Memorial Day, so this is just as good… right?

When I was buying a new (to me) car this past winter, I drove all around Northern Virginia scoping out my options. For one test-drive, I found myself navigating the twists and turns of Ft. Belvoir. Though the military base is not far from where I live, I had never been inside the gates before.

I was surprised at the expanse and attempted self-sufficiency of the place; it had (or tried to have) everything, from the bank to Starbucks to gas stations. Its cookie-cutter Main Street was what I imagine every time some pundit talks about middle America.

I became hopelessly lost in labyrinthine streets and neighborhoods. (GPS, I found, doesn’t work on military bases. Yeah, it seems more obvious in retrospect.)

I wondered, as I drove aimlessly and probably attracted the attention of more than a few guards, what it would be like to live in this immense place. It strains so hard for normalcy, but I could see more guns than in the first season of “The Wire.”

I didn’t have to wonder long; with this book, first-time novelist Siobhan Fallon brought me into the homes of the army bases and the lives of military families. Fallon’s eight short stories examine the intricacies of relationships between the men who leave for war and the women who are left waiting.

Meg, the main character in the first story, “You Know When the Men Are Gone,” considers becoming pregnant when her husband returns. The reason for her reluctance embodies the sentiment of all of the stories in the collection:

If it was almost impossible for her to live half a life without the man who was supposed to share all of it, how could she be both father and mother for some unfinished and needy little being?

Being in a long-distance relationship is difficult, and the danger of a soldier’s life takes the stress of being apart to a whole new level. The women’s loneliness, doubt, and fear are the driving forces of the stories.

Carla is the lonely mother Meg wishes to avoid being. When her husband finally comes home, he seems utterly changed; more than just seeming uninterested in their new child, he becomes violent and aggressive with the slightest provocations. Carla questions how couples, especially those under the pressure of war, stay together:

She bit her lip and wondered if this was the sum of a marriage: wordless recriminations or reconciliations, every breath either striving for or toward some other person, each second a decision to exert or abdicate the self.

The couples’ fidelity and trust is pushed to a breaking point, both by being apart and then by being thrust together after having suffered in different ways.

I finished You Know When the Men Are Gone very quickly, waiting in a Thailand airport for a flight to Chiang Mai.

The women were a little flat; they struggle to have lives outside of the limitations put upon them by their husbands’ careers, and their lives seem to revolve around their men, even (or especially) when they’re not there.

Though this is a book meant to peer into the inner lives of Army wives and girlfriends, the two stories I liked most were both, for the most part, about men suffering from PTSD and dealing with it in very different ways. The suspense of “Leave” had me on the edge of my airport seat, and I shook my head at Kit riding a mechanical bull with a broken leg in “The Last Stand.”

The characters reinforce gender stereotypes to a degree; the women stay at home, many of them without careers or any kind of life outside of the military base. Captain Roddy, who is stationed at the base during the war, seems unable to understand women, both in his home and under his professional watch:

He always seemed slightly uncomfortable with the spouses, with the niceties involved with dealing with women, the feelings that could be hurt, the hope of good news in the waiting eyes. He glanced around the room as if he wished he was in Iraq, briefing a room full of infantry meat-eaters, cursing his head off and spitting tobacco into a battered Coke bottle.

Since women are not officially allowed in combat units, war is told largely from the perspective of men, both in this story and elsewhere. I would’ve loved to see similar glimpses into the lives of female soldiers, but that would be a different book.

The stories are tied together loosely, and the effect is tremendous. In a world where much fear and pain remains hidden and unexpressed, there is magic in the slow unraveling of the inner lives of each character. The outer strength of a minor character in one story is stripped away in their own narrative, revealing very human struggles and doubts behind the stoicism of survival.

I’m a pacifist. The idea of war, of real men and women willingly putting their lives in danger to defend their country and/or its ideals, is almost incomprehensible to me. But this book, though it doesn’t change my own views of war, made great strides in showing me the motivations of a soldier—and the sacrifices made by and for the ones left behind.

Interested? Read it for yourself! Buy You Know When the Men Are Gone from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle edition).

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