Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Review: You Know When the Men Are Gone Siobhan Fallon

You Know When the Men are Gone She bit her lip and wondered if this was the sum of a marriage: wordless recriminations or reconciliations, every breath either striving against or toward the other person, each second a decision to exert or abdicate the self.

Short stories are generally difficult for readers to embrace. In theory we like them, at times we read them, but we rarely jump up and down about new short story collections. So even when I heard the writing was fantastic in You Know When the Men Are Gone, the real appeal was that these were stories about military families.

I sometimes think our country is particularly uncomfortable in dealing with military families. After all, we may thank our soldiers for their service but the fact remains they are sacrificing in big huge amounts...time with family, limbs, life, and peace of mind so that we can live in a world where we talk about the latest celebrity gossip as if it were news. And even worse, we rarely pay attention to the events that shape their existence and impact their families. We often use their stories as pieces of political tug-of-war and forget the full human in that uniform, the beating heart underneath the flesh we trade.

So I looked forward to reading these stories, and I have to tell you I was blown away. What Fallon has done is to find the moments in the lives of military personnel and their wives, mostly, that are teeming with choice and impact. Snapshots that encapsulate the larger lives they lead. Her crisp, precise prose invites us so fully into the scene, we see through the eyes of the characters. We sense their reality, their agony, their sorrows, frustrations, and disappointments. We smell the world around them and can almost reach out and touch the place they live. This is, technically, a collection of short stories, but really it's an invitation to see the many jagged pieces that complete a whole...a very decent look at life in Fort Hood.

Perhaps that's why this didn't feel like a short story collection to me. The main character was Fort Hood, the unifying, centralizing force in the middle. Something bad happens, a terrible event happens, and its effects reverberate throughout each short, each life affected in some way, and often in such different ways from each other.

Lest you think you won't relate to these stories because you live a happily civilian life, I want to reassure you that Fallon's stories are uniquely about the military and yet stunningly universal all at once. These are stories about life and the human heart, first and foremost. Whether that's reflected in the woman who wonders if she's made a mistake in marrying her husband, the man who rages with jealousy at his wife's infidelity, the returning soldier who's girlfriend leaves him not for any fault of his own, or the wife who fears her husband is someone different than who she married, you will find yourself and the people you know here. The emotional truth reached right through the pages and pulled my heart right out...I found myself sobbing at a few of these stories, and gasping with delight at the beauty of the words in others.

You Know When the Men are Gone is already garnering rave reviews from many corners, and I really hope it continues to find itself in the hands of readers. It's a wonderful short story collection, the writing is that rare kind to be savored and enjoyed and Siobahn Fallon is a welcome new voice on the literary scene.

Rating: 5/5
Things You Might Want to Know: Some profanity
Source of Book: ARC received from publisher
Publisher: Amy Einhorn (Penguin)


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