Can you think of anything more poignant than a soldier returning home from the Iraq war on Christmas Day? Novelist Cara Hoffman expertly creates such a tableau at the opening of her new novel, “Be Safe I Love You.” Sgt. Lauren Clay sneaks into the house of her father, Jack, and younger brother, Danny:
“Danny threw his arms around her and their father, and he rocked them back and forth,” Hoffman writes. “Jack let go so that he could give his sister a proper embrace. ‘Whooooo!’ Danny yelled. He high-fived her. Then hugged her again. She rested her head against his shoulder and they stood that way close to tears. He still felt like a baby to her. Taller and thinner but no muscles. She pulled back to look at him. His once round face was now longer and defined, making their resemblance clear, the dark hair and eyes and something in the expression. Some abiding tough sweetness. ‘The two of you,’ Jack said, wiping his eyes, the smile still there. ‘Look at you.’ ”
The Grinch himself would feel swept up in the tenderness of this holiday moment, so raw and ramshackle-perfect. But what we don’t know yet is that this beloved young woman is only halfway home.
In so many ways, we still think of warfare and soldiering as male endeavors. The plight of the female soldier remains largely out of view — in print media, on television news, even in fiction and film. Through Lauren, Hoffman’s thoroughly researched and carefully crafted heroine, “Be Safe I Love You” illuminates the distaff side of military service and the ways that life in uniform are at once different and, at times, uncannily similar for men and women.
Like so many working-class kids, Lauren enlisted in hopes of marching her way into the middle class, bringing her family with her. The signing bonus promised to her may well save her father’s house from foreclosure, but the financial edge she sought comes at a steep price, and she returns to Watertown, N.Y., under a pall of traumatic stress, fatigue and disillusionment. The father and brother for whom she feels responsible seem to have faltered in her absence. Jack has grown frail and absent-minded, while Danny seeks escape in music and near-constant screen time. Old friends and lovers notice that Lauren has changed, too, and the Army psychologist overseeing her unit calls repeatedly.
Hemmed in by the dreary limitations of her sleepy hometown and haunted by phobias, fixations and nightmares, Lauren offers to take Danny on a trip — ostensibly to visit their mother upstate. Instead, she takes her brother deep into the Canadian woods on a strange mission that falls somewhere between survivalist training and war-inspired vision quest.
“The sky was already turning violet over the rounded tree-lined hillsides in the west,” Hoffman writes. “The place was more beautiful and distant than she’d hoped. . . . As if sacred music had become a place, found a material form. She felt her heart pound with something other than the instinctual chemical flood of being a hunted, hunting animal, the grounded yet soaring feeling that comes from using your body to sing. She smiled and filled her lungs with the cold clean air. The things that take your breath, she thought, didn’t have to take your life.”
Toward the end of this fine novel, Lauren finds a new life for herself based on her old passions, but Hoffman doesn’t give us the sense that she’s fully healed. Rather, she is, in her own way, soldiering on, a woman forever changed. Though her future seems full of promise, there can be no guarantee that she will always be one step ahead of her private terrors, no certainty that she will never again know the grip of war’s chaos. “She knew now that the difference between never and always was small,” Hoffman writes. “Never and always are separated by a wasp’s waist, a small sliver of safety glass, one bead of sweat; separated by the seven seconds it takes to exhale the air from your lungs, to make your body as still as the corpse you are about to create.”
Burana is the author of three books, including, most recently, “I Love a Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love, War, and Other Battles.”
BE SAFE I LOVE YOU
By Cara Hoffman
Simon & Schuster. 289 pp. $26