We think we know things about military families, glimpses we get from newspaper photos and television news. Soldiers saying goodbye to wives and husbands, holding tight to frightened children, looking so alike in their desert camouflage, in their determination to survive the leave-taking. It's the things we don't know, the hours leading to and the months that follow those public moments that Siobhan Fallon, herself a military wife, shows us in her lovely and wrenching first book, "You Know When the Men Are Gone."
Told in eight loosely linked short stories, Fallon takes us into the homes and hardships of family life in today's active military. She sets the stage in the first sentence of the first story: "In … all army housing, you get used to hearing through the walls."
Fallon, who now lives in Jordan, where her husband is stationed, knows the rhythms of the base firsthand. Her stories, vivid and elegant, are anchored in the ordinary stresses and strains of married life. There's a woman who cheats and a woman worried she's being cheated on, an enraged teenage daughter in mid-rebellion, a brand-new widow, desperate for any sort of solace. What renders the stories extraordinary are the circumstances. The husbands and fathers are either deployed to, returning from, or irreparably scarred by the U.S. war in Iraq. The distance and the dangers infuse even the most routine bits of home life with peril.
In the title story, Meg is a young wife enduring the final weeks of her husband's deployment. She becomes obsessed with her new neighbor, Natalya Torres, a recent arrival from Serbia. Torres was cutting hair on a military base in Kosovo when she met the man who would become her husband. Though Sgt. Torres had been married at the time to a woman patiently waiting at home, when he returned from Kosovo, he brought with him an exotic new wife. As Meg listens at the apartments' shared walls, she learns that Sgt. Torres' second wife may not be quite as patient as his first.
In "The Last Stand," Spc. Kit Murphy has left Iraq with a crippling injury. Yet it's the fight for his wife, who simply wants out of the military grind, that may deal him the gravest blow. With her clean, precise prose, Fallon tells the story through Murphy's eyes — the return to a home that may no longer exist. Unless you read carefully, you may miss how heartbreakingly young Murphy and his wife, Helena, actually are. "Kit had turned 21 in Iraq, his birthday spent guarding Assassins' Gate, one of the checkpoints in the Green Zone, and that day his buddies had toasted him with hot canteen water that tasted faintly of bleach." After a brutal war, Murphy's return proves equally treacherous. "Kit hadn't realized the idea of home could pose such a danger. That it could steal Helena away from him so completely. Or that it could never be his own home again."
While the stories in the collection are gripping, what's perhaps most compelling are the details of military life. There's the wife whose first act each morning is to scour the Internet, searching for news of roadside bombs, of injuries or fatalities, anything for proof her husband and his battalion remain unharmed, "at least for today." When Natalya, the Serbian war bride, asks to borrow money at the grocery store, she breaks a major taboo. In a world where a wife's failure to keep the grass trimmed to regulation height reaps official reprimand, any hint of financial trouble travels all too easily up the chain of command, and reflects badly on the soldier.
Fallon, who earned an MFA in writing from the New School in New York, gives a compassionate yet unflinching portrait of the modern-day home front. She knows the world well, having spent two of her husband's deployments among the waiting wives. In "You Know When the Men Are Gone," she reminds us of the outsized burden our military families carry, that the overseas casualty counts carried in newscasts can never tell the whole truth.
De Turenne is a journalist and the author of the Here in Malibu blog.