I stumbled across this and it sounded in theory like something I’d be very interested in: a novel about a soldier coming back from Iraq with undiagnosed PTSD (a subject I’ve been researching and reading about for years now as I struggle with my own work on a similar subject), and even better, the solider is a woman (as is the author, obviously), and that’s a demographic that’s badly underrepresented in literature. In my “Uses of History” class, during the unit on war’s continuing effects on returned soldiers, I always teach Sigrid Nunez’s great For Rouenna; it’s one of the very few novels I know of that takes up the lingering effects of war on women who’ve served. Even more, reviews of Hoffman’s novel promised that she also incorporated the realities of class in Be Safe I Love You; the returned soldier, Lauren Clay, enlisted out of a sense of economic responsibility to her family. This too is an aspect too often missing from contemporary war literature and film. I’ve looked at a lot of novels, stories, plays, journalism, documentary films, and fictional films about soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan; not many focus on veterans’ economic realities.
So this was ticking a lot of boxes for me before I even started it, and I was anxious I’d be disappointed because I tend toward disappointment. The novel begins slowly, and drags a bit as Hoffman somewhat methodically gets all her characters and settings into position for the first 150 pages or so, but the second half of the book really pays off. Lauren Clay is the most reliable and self-sufficient person in town, and everyone — her family and friends — has come to rely on her and take her steadiness for granted. When the damage done to her in war begins to seep through her facade of competency, it’s terrifying for those who love her, and you feel it too.
Deceptively simple book. Hoffmans wears her politics and knowledge very lightly. The Joan of Arc oilfield. The ghost dog Sebastian. Lots of small touches.
I find the marketing for this book interesting. The intertwined hands on the cover, and the treacly title . . . what’s that about?
This collection got a good review in the New Yorker earlier this year, and since it’s subject is one I’ve been interested in, I got hold of it and read it this summer. I’ve kept up pretty well with the journalism from the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The literature of a war takes longer to emerge.
It’s a strong and admirable collection, but it’s not a great one. The stories are straightforward, sometimes even programmatic enactments of the awful conflicts our returning soldiers face, without much aesthetic ado. That’s fine, and honest, and valuable, and I was very pleased to learn that Klay’s just taken home the National Book Award for 2014, since the attendant rise in sales will likely bring this subject matter into the lives of a lot of people who haven’t yet come to understand the challenges veterans face today.
But if you’ve been tracking those challenges through the myriad nonfictional sources (e.g., Thank You for Your Service, David Finkel; Lethal Warriors, David Philipps; Homefront, Richard Hankin; and so many excellent public television documentaries), Klay’s book will likely feel pretty flat in comparison.
This is literary journalism at its utter finest. Finkel’s first book, The Good Soldiers (2009), is the best book I’ve read about what it was like to be a soldier in Iraq; this new book is the best I’ve read about what it is like to have been a soldier in Iraq. I am not kidding when I say that it seems to me, after having read both books, that the emotional and physical traumas of having fought seem comparably dangerous and debilitating to the traumas of fighting. Fighting, everything happens at once, you’re with your friends, your environment is complex and alien and ever-shifting, there’s little time to think. Coming home after having fought, you have nothing but time to think. Instants of experience in Iraq become unending operas of nightmare when you’re back in your cul-de-sac in Kansas. It takes half a second to get both your legs blown off, and then the rest of your life to try to feel like a whole person again.
You should read this book, whoever you are, so I won’t say too much more about it except two things. One: Finkel’s a masterful journalist and if no one’s yet called him the Michael Herr of Iraq allow me to be the first. Two: I particularly appreciated here the way that Finkel draws our attention to the traumas endured by the families of soldiers returned from war. If veterans are forgotten, and veterans whose war wounds are invisible rather than visible (mental health problems, traumatic brain injury) are doubly forgotten, then triply forgotten are the wives and children and mothers and fathers who have to try to pay the mortgages and put food on the table while also trying to cope with the presence of a beloved but shattered person in their lives. These veterans’ families are fighting a war too, and their patrol will never end.