As service members returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, they took a cue from earlier generations and started writing about their wartime experience. The surge in fiction by these veterans included such powerful stories as “The Yellow Birds,” “Fives and Twenty-Fives” and “Redeployment.”
But whither the military spouse?
Many of these novels and story collections focus on the solitary experience of war or on friendships formed in the heat of battle. And yet the effects of military service extend to the families back home.
Modern military spouses, like Alison Buckholtz and Lily Burana, have published outstanding nonfiction chronicling their experiences. And Siobhan Fallon is here to help fill the void in fiction. She’s the author of the 2011 story collection “You Know When the Men Are Gone,” about military spouses stateside, and now she’s published her debut novel, “The Confusion of Languages.”
The dramatic story is told from the perspective of two very different wives of Army officers stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Jordan as the Arab Spring unfolds. Cassie, who has been married and living abroad for years, takes Margaret, who is newly married and far away from home for the first time, under her wing.
It’s a common practice in the military for experienced families to sponsor newer ones, resulting, as in this case, in all kinds of interesting dynamics. Cassie longs for someone to control, to be her pet. Margaret longs for adventure but is socially awkward and rash. Their circumstances breed intimacy, and eventually the relationship they form boils over, altering the course of many lives.
Fallon’s storytelling approach is clever, if at times stilted. She has Cassie comb through Margaret’s journal when she’s left alone one afternoon. The narrative voice jumps between Cassie’s anxious thoughts about her situation and Margaret’s private writings. Fallon maintains the moral ambiguity between these two women throughout.
Along the way, “The Confusion of Languages” explores friendships, parenting and the civilian/military divide. That last issue makes the novel most relevant to readers. The more we can shrink the yawning chasm between families’ experiences, the better for us all.
Tayla Burney is a writer in Washington.
By Siobhan Fallon
G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 324 pp. $26