THE CONFUSION OF LANGUAGES explores female friendship amid cultural conflicts in Jordan

The Confusion of Languages

By Siobhan Fallon

Putnam — June 27, 2017

$26.00, 324 pages

Siobhan Fallon made a huge impression on me with her debut story collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011), about the experience of military wives living at Fort Hood, Texas, and the men who leave them and later return in a range of challenging mental and physical states.

Fallon, who lived at Fort Hood and now resides in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, returns with her first novel, The Confusion of Languages, set in Jordan during the Arab Spring uprising in May 2011. It is the story of two American women whose military husbands work at the U.S. Embassy in Amman. Cassie and Dan Hugo have been in Jordan for a while and are asked to serve as mentors to a newly-arrived (and newly married) couple, Margaret and Creighton (known as Crick) Brickshaw. Cassie has mixed feelings about mentoring Margaret, but she soon decides that a new friend, with a baby in tow, would be a good thing so far from home.

The plot is set in motion when Margaret and Cassie are involved in a minor rear-end car accident. Margaret is astonished the local police officer ‘s brief, on-the-spot investigation concludes that the accident was her fault. Cassie’s explanation that in Jordan the woman is always at fault, as a legal and cultural matter, falls on deaf ears. An embassy guard, called to the scene by Cassie, explains that Margaret simply needs to go to the police station to complete some paperwork admitting fault, and the embassy will take care of everything after that. It’s Jordan, and they do things differently here. Upset, Margaret decides to go home first so she can change, feed her baby, and then go to the police station while Cassie babysits. But the hours pass and Cassie does not hear from Margaret, nor does Margaret respond to Cassie’s increasingly perplexed and agitated texts. Cassie begins to worry about her naive and emotional friend.

Margaret is as complex a character as one is ever likely to meet, the classic naif in this “fish out of water” tale. 

Before long, the plot of The Confusion of Languages becomes as much a thriller as a cultural exploration and character study. Fallon tells the story through Cassie’s first-person narrative over the afternoon and evening of May 13, 2011, and Margaret’s journal, which Cassie discovers and then reads while she waits for Margaret to return from the police station.

Cassie soon learns that Margaret has a secret that could change everything.

Margaret is as complex a character as one is ever likely to meet. Slender, blonde, and pretty, and seemingly extroverted, she is in fact carrying two heavy burdens. Margaret is loquacious, effusive, kind-hearted, and curious, the classic naif in this “fish out of water” tale. But, as we soon learn from her journal, she is also introspective and something of an intellectual.

She is struggling with her mother’s recent death from cancer and an oppressive childhood. She has placed all her hopes on her new life with Crick and their baby, Mather. Crick, the ultimate warrior, is trying to fulfill his sense of duty toward Margaret despite complications in their past.

Can this small-town girl find her way as a military spouse in the Middle East? She finds life in Jordan chaotic and difficult to understand. So, at the same time she is studying Arabic, she is also obsessed with the meaning of words in English, writing their definitions in her journal. She attempts to impose order on the chaos of the world and her life, trying to make sense of the incomprehensible.

Cassie’s efforts to guide Margaret through her transition to life in Jordan’s complicated culture are often met with stubborn resistance and her determination to do things her way.

Cassie is coping with her own sense of loss in not being able to have a baby, and it is driving a wedge between her and Dan. Cassie is methodical and reasonable where Margaret is impulsive and unpredictable. Their friendship is erratic, moving from a developing intimacy to perplexing distance without any pattern.

Cassie’s efforts to guide Margaret through her transition to life in Jordan and to teach her about Jordanian culture, especially expectations regarding male-female interactions, are often met with stubborn resistance and Margaret’s determination to do things her way, without concern for Jordanian and Muslim customs. Margaret is certain that her warmth, kindness, and American “can do” approach will be sufficient in every situation.

Cassie and Margaret may speak the same language, but they frequently misinterpret each other’s words, actions, and intentions.

But she is mistaken. Her innocent attempts to form friendships with Saleh, the maintenance man in her apartment building, and Hassan, a widower who works as one of the entrance guards at the embassy and who teaches her words and phrases in Arabic, lead to confusion and misunderstandings that go beyond “the confusion of languages.”

Cassie and Margaret may speak the same language, but they frequently misinterpret each other’s words, actions, and intentions. Margaret eventually rejects Cassie as her guide to Jordan, preferring to find her own way and place her trust in her new father-figure of a friend.

The Confusion of Languages probes the ramifications of these misunderstandings and the characters’ good intentions gone awry. Both Cassie and Margaret are good people, but they are flawed and deeply human. Here, as always in good fiction, that is what makes for a memorable novel. Although their alternating perspectives create a rich, insightful character development, I was occasionally distracted by the nature of Margaret’s journal, which seems overly sophisticated and literary for a journal but, admittedly, does make for a more compelling read. Fallon is reportedly now at work on a novel about foreign laborers in Abu Dhabi, so she appears to be carving out a niche as the novelist of the expat experience in the Middle East.


PRETTY MUCH TRUE a sobering examination of the price paid by those on the home front of the War on Terror

Pretty Much True   Kristen Tsetsi aka Chris Jane

Pretty Much True

By Chris Jane

Penxere Press: Jan. 18, 2015

260 pages, $12.95

The last several years have seen women writers, of both fiction and nonfiction, addressing the manifold issues involved in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are, in general, distinguished by a focus on the experiences of returning soldiers and the effects on those on the home front of the “War on Terror.”

Roxana Robinson’s Sparta and Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You follow a male and female soldier, respectively, as they try to negotiate the emotional land mines of civilian life in a home they no longer recognize. Katey Schultz’s Flashes of War offers a multi-faceted look into virtually every aspect of the war through several dozen pieces of flash fiction. Siobhan Fallon’s story collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone, explores life on the Fort Hood army base following the Iraq invasion in 2003. Laura Harrington’s Alice Bliss is a sensitive coming-of-age story about a girl whose father is fighting in Iraq. Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen depicts the Iraq experiences of a female soldier facing harassment from all quarters.

The latest addition to this impressive collection of fiction is Chris Jane’s Pretty Much True, an intensely focused look at the life of Mia Sharpe, a young woman who is coping with loneliness, anxiety, and depression after her long-time boyfriend/almost-fiance, Jake Lakeland, is deployed to Iraq as part of the invading forces. Mia is living near the base in Tennessee, where she has few friends and little in the way of a support system. Formerly a part-time college English professor, she has walked away from her work in frustration and taken up cab driving as a stopgap measure.

Pretty Much True follows Mia as she struggles to maintain her spirits against an onslaught of worries. Is Jake alive and will he return as the man she loves? How can she earn a living from her unpredictable income as a cab driver? What is she to do about her friend Denise, the wife of Jake’s best friend William, who appears to be straying? Why is she having difficulty developing a relationship with her neighbor Safia, whose nationality she is unable to determine? How will she manage to tolerate Jake’s manipulative mother, Olivia?

But the most intriguing aspect of the plot is Mia’s tentative friendship with one of her regular fares, “Doctor” Gary Donaldson, a damaged Vietnam vet who alternates between two realities, only one of which he shares with Mia. Donny is an intriguingly complex character who provides an ominous picture of one possible future waiting for Mia.

Chris Jane has written a riveting character study that convincingly depicts the distress experienced by those still at home while the people they love are halfway around the world in harm’s way, often incommunicado for weeks or months. The supporting characters are realistic, the plot arises organically from the characters and conflicts, and the dialogue is pleasantly idiosyncratic. The novel’s strongest feature is Mia’s narrative voice, which holds us to the spot and forces us to confront what this 12-year-long war is really like for those who are entangled in it – and what their lives will be like when it is officially “over.”

If you’re wondering about the book’s title, the source is Kurt Vonnegut’s surreal anti-war classic, Slaughterhouse-Five, which contains the now-famous lines, “All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.”

What Are Some of Our Favorite Women Authors Reading This Summer? Part 2

Summer is the season when readers have more time to read than usual. Accordingly, there seems to be more talk than usual these days about what people are reading or planning to read. So I thought I would ask several writers about their summer reading. 

I posed three questions to them: 

  1. What have you read recently that impressed you (and that readers should know about)?
  2. What are you currently reading?
  3. What is in your To Be Read stack?

I received the responses that follow, each of which includes books you will almost certainly want to read. There are more good books being published than ever, and there are still all those earlier books, from classics to last year’s overlooked books, so the options for readers are truly unlimited. 

Part 1 of this feature was posted on July 20, 2014 and can be found here


Katie Crouch   Abroad

Katie Crouch, author of Abroad

Recently Read: The Blindfold  by Siri Hustvedt. This legendary writer’s first book. In this novel-in-stories, Iris Vegan is an impoverished graduate student in New York. I love how having no money is met with fear and utter despair here, which is such a very real phenomenon. So many times in novels characters say they’re broke, but being a woman alone with no money in New York invokes a special sort of peril. The book has some wonderful twists, during one of which Iris cross dresses, and another when she has a brush with madness. She also falls completely for the wrong man. It’s a truly wonderful psychological thriller.

Reading now: The Year She Left Us by Kathryn Ma. It’s about a young adopted Chinese woman in the U.S. who returns to her homeland to research her family, and how that choice reverberates throughout her life and her current fractured clan. The writing is out of this world.

Going to read: The Hundred Year House by Rebecca Makkai. I’ve heard great things about this one. Plus it’s spooky, and I love spook. Great writing? An English manor house? Twisted characters? I’m sold.

[My review of Abroad is coming soon.]

Kimberly Elkins   What is Visible

Kimberly Elkins, author of What is Visible

What I read recently that impressed me: David Samuel Levinson recently published a stunning novel, Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence, that really knocked my socks off.  The book manages the nearly impossible feat of being a page-turner while still embracing literary writing of the highest order.  The novel is populated by unforgettable characters, and the secrets abound and rebound.  Trust me, you want to read this one!

What I’m currently reading: I am, in general, often afraid of poetry–modern poetry, anyway–afraid that it will make me feel stupid for not understanding its obscure tropes and labyrinthine metaphorical conceits, and so when I find a poet whose work stirs me in ways that I both can and cannot understand, and yet is still accessible, then I am smitten.  Rita Mae Reese’s The Alphabet Conspiracy is such a book. Reese uses dictionary entries as the jumping-off point to uncover, and to rediscover, messages of the soul encoded in language, and the results are gorgeously engrossing.

What’s up next on my reading list: I’m eager to read Valerie Martin’s The Ghost of the Marie Celeste, another historical novel based on real people and events:  the Marie Celeste, a ship which vanished in 1872, and the storm stirred up by young Arthur Conan Doyle’s story about it.  Martin’s Property is one of the finest, most stirring novels I’ve ever read, and was key to showing me what historical fiction could be at its best.  There’s nothing like learning from a master, page by page, line by line.

Siobhan Fallon   You-Know-When-the-Men-Are-Gone

Siobhan Fallon, author of You Know When the Men Are Gone

Was recently impressed by: Anything and everything by Valerie Trueblood. She is a master. We ought to all know her name; she belongs on that lofty shelf with Annie Proulx and Grace Paley. Her stories are wide sweeping worlds, everything captured in a handful of pages, and they astound. They also inspire; I always want to write, and write something completely different and new, as soon as I finish one of her stories. My favorite collection is Marry or Burn, but her latest, Search Party: Stories of Rescue, is also great.

Reading now: Right now I am reading Lily King’s Euphoria for the second time, and I very rarely reread a book when there are so many out there on my ‘list’ to get to. But Euphoria is everything I wish I could put in the novel I am currently working on— a tortured love affair combined with the examination of human behavior and how cultures clash. Euphoria is also filled with beautiful, insightful writing and electric tension. King is terrific.

Up next: Rebecca Rasmussen’s Evergreen, just released. Rebecca’s debut novel, The Bird Sisters, came out around the same time as my collection of stories, and we became fast friends thanks to social media and a panel (and shared hotel room!) at the 2011 AWP in Washington, DC. She’s an all-round lovely and magnificently talented woman. If you’ll excuse me, I am going to open up her new book right now…

[My review of You Know When the Men Are Gone is here.]

Patry Francis

Patry Francis, author of The Orphans of Race Point

I was afraid I might not have time to do much reading while I was promoting my novel [The Orphans of Race Point], but the opposite has proven true. Every time I do an author talk or a reading at a bookstore, I discover another book or two or three that I simply must have.

Recently, I’ve been telling everyone I know about The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh, Long Man by Amy Greene, and The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez. Though they are very different, they all have strong protagonists — and a lot of heart.

My current read is The Blessings by Elisa Juska. It was recommended to me by two friends who recently heard her speak here on the Cape and did not disappoint.

Booksellers have convinced me I must not miss: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra or Daphne Kolotay’s Russian Winter. Those are up next for me.

[My review of The Orphans of Race Point is coming soon.]

 mira-jacob   Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing

Mira Jacob, author of The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing

I just finished reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

I’m reading The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum, and The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes.

Next up are Ted Thompson’s The Land of Steady Habits and Marie Helene Bertino’s 2 a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas!

 Dylan-Landis   Rainey-Royal

Dylan Landis, author of Rainey Royal

Recent: Robin Black’s Life Drawing. Suspenseful, gorgeously lyrical portrait of a couple whose marriage, shadowed by an old affair, is painfully tested again. I love it especially for lines like this: “There are often two conversations going on in a marriage. The one that you’re having and the one you’re not. Sometimes you don’t even know when that second, silent one has begun.”

Current: An advance copy of Marilynne Robinson’s Lila. I haven’t read Gilead, which this follows, but I’m an ardent lover of Housekeeping, and this seems nearly as beautiful and intimate. She has a lovely fluid way of looping back and forth through time, creating layer upon narrative layer.

Next: Maybe Lynne Tillman’s Someday This Will Be Funny. Or Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street. Or the new Edward St. Aubyn, Lost for Words.

[My review of Rainey Royal is coming soon.]


Rebecca Makkai, author of The Hundred-Year House

I just read Cristina Henriquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans, which is not just beautiful but important, the kind of book that teaches us empathy.

I’m reading Kate Racculia’s Bellweather Rhapsody, which is a bit like The Westing Game for adults. (That’s a high compliment. It’s so fun that I’m shirking all nonessential duty to read.)

I was blown away in the bookstore by the first page of Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State. I’d heard it was amazing, but I wasn’t prepared to be knocked clear across the bookstore.

[My review of The Hundred-Year House is coming soon.]

 Virginia Pye   River of Dust

Virginia Pye, author of River of Dust

I just finished Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek.

Right now I’m reading Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China (all 900 pages) in an ongoing way as research for my next novel. I’m also reading The Art of Floating by Kristin Bair O’Keeffe and Out of Peel Tree by Laura Long. I tend to read more than one novel at once.

I’m looking forward to reading Bret Anthony Johnson’s Remember Me Like This and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.

The research book by Spence — a history of modern China — is like ballast. The rest is for pleasure and to see what’s being written well right now. There are so many more books I’m not mentioning! These are just the ones of the moment.

I also always have an Audible book on my iPod for when I’m out walking the dog or on long car rides. Right now, I’m entering the magical, fully-fleshed out world of Bleak House, where I expect I’ll be for months. Kind of a treat to hear those wonderful British accents and to enjoy Dickens’ humor and impeccable language. The man could write.

[My review of River of Dust is here.]

Brittani Sonnenberg with Home Leave cover

Brittani Sonnenberg, author of Home Leave

I just finished Celeste Ng’s book, Everything I Never Told You, which I found intricately plotted and deftly written. I recently read Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote and really loved it, especially the way he paints setting. And I recently came across a poem (“Found to Be Borrowed from Some Material Appearance (5)”) by Donna Stonecipher, a Berlin-based American poet, which I think is pretty brilliant.

I think Jane Gardam, a British writer, now 86, deserves more attention. She wrote a fantastic trilogy mostly set in Hong Kong, the first book of which is Old Filth. I also admire Amy Bloom’s short story collection, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You.

I’m currently reading The Singapore Grip by J.G. Farrell and The Art Spirit by Robert Henri, and I plan on reading California by Edan Lepucki and Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.

[My review of Home Leave is here.]

Tomi L. Wiley

Tomi L. Wiley

I just finished Bloodroot by Amy Greene, and before that Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer (in between some John Greene, but he’s not a woman). I just bought Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House two days ago – excited to read it. Up next is either Elizabeth Gilbert [The Signature of All Things] or Abroad by Katie Crouch. Reeeeeeally looking forward to the new Tana French.

Literary Giveaway Blog Hop!

Literary Blog Hop button for 6-21-14


A.M.B., who hosts the Misfortune of Knowing blog [] is the winner of the random drawing for a copy of YOU KNOW WHEN THE MEN ARE GONE by Siobhan Fallon. Thank you to all who participated. I hope you will pick up a copy of Siobhan’s terrific book; you won’t be disappointed. 




The Literary Giveaway Blog Hop is hosted by Judith at Leeswammes’ Blog.  From today (Sat., June 21) to Wednesday, June 25, you can “hop” to more than 30 book blogs, all of which are offering giveaways of books or book-related items. All books will be literary (non)fiction or something close to that. Follow the links at the bottom of this post to find the other participating blogs.


I’m giving away a copy of one of my favorite books of the last few years, Siobhan Fallon’s YOU KNOW WHEN THE MEN ARE GONE. It’s a powerful short story collection that captures the lives of the residents of Fort Hood army base in Texas, alternating between the women and children whose men are serving in Iraq and the soldiers themselves (sometimes in Iraq, sometimes back on the base). Fallon lived at Fort Hood while her husband, an Army major, served two tours of duty in Iraq.

You can read my review here.

My interview with Siobhan Fallon is here.

You-Know-When-the-Men-Are-Gone  Siobhan Fallon

You Know When the Men Are Gone was listed as a Best Book of 2011 by The San Francisco Chronicle, Self Magazine, Los Angeles Public Library, Janet Maslin of The New York Times, and won a 2012 Indies Choice Honor Award, the Texas Institute of Letters Award for First Fiction, and the 2012 Pen Center USA Literary Award in Fiction. Her collection of stories about the families of Fort Hood, Texas, during an Army brigade’s deployment to Iraq, has been called “the explosive sort of literary triumph that appears only every few years” by New York Journal of Books, “a terrific and terrifically illuminating book” by The Washington Post, a “searing collection” by Entertainment Weekly, and “fascinating” by O, The Oprah Magazine. Theatrical productions of her stories include performances by Word for Word in San Francisco and Stories on Stage in Denver. Siobhan’s work has appeared in Women’s Day, Good Housekeeping, New Letters, Publishers’ Weekly, NPR’s The Morning Edition, and Huffington Post, and she writes a fiction series for Military Spouse Magazine. Siobhan has an MFA from the New School in NYC. She currently resides in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.


  1. Any U.S. resident can enter (sorry, international readers).  Just leave a comment to this post and include your email.
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  3. There will be one winner.
  4. You can enter the giveaway until Wednesday, June 25 at midnight PDT.
  5. Tweet about the giveaway for ONE extra entry. Use this text: Win a book in the Literary Giveaway Blog Hop at ReadHerLikeAnOpenBook the blog for lit fiction by women  
  6. I will notify the winner by email. The winner needs to answer my email within 3 days, or I’ll announce a new winner.
  7. Be sure to visit some or all of the other participating blogs to enter their book giveaways. Good luck!
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Women Writers on the Iraq War: A Collection of Reviews & Interviews

With the situation in Iraq back in the news once again, it seemed like an opportune time to share my reviews of these books about the war and my interviews with the authors.  All are highly recommended.

Sparta cover art

Roxana Robinson — Sparta review

Roxana Robinson — Interview

Flashes of War

Katey Schultz — Flashes of War review

Sand Queen

Helen Benedict — Sand Queen review

Be Safe I Love You

Cara Hoffman — Be Safe I Love You review

Cara Hoffman – Interview

You Know When the Men Are Gone

Siobhan Fallon — You Know When the Men Are Gone review

Siobhan Fallon – Interview


Beverly GologorskyStop Here review


Siobhan Fallon: “More perspectives and differing voices on the topic of contemporary war can only be a good thing.”

Siobhan-Fallon-husband  Siobhan-Fallon-pbs

Photos courtesy of PBS/WNET’s “Need to Know.”

I love the military community and feel very at home in it; I’m fortunate to have great military friends. But the stories of those who few who fell through the cracks haunt me, and it was their stories I wanted to shine a light on.

My review of Siobhan Fallon’s short story collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone, can be found here:  (published 4/27/14).

What inspired you to write the stories in You Know When the Men Are Gone? Had you done any serious writing before marrying a military man and living at Fort Hood, or did the experience turn you into a writer?

I’d been writing forever, from little stapled-together books in childhood to a few stories in literary magazines after getting my MFA in Creative Writing in 2000. But I think that it was life at Fort Hood that made me most fully embrace the axiom of “write what you know.”

An army base is a strange place. An army base in a time of war is even stranger. Especially after 4000 men pack up their duffel bags, put on their uniforms, and leave their wives and children for an entire year. I wanted to show that world in my stories, from the moments that lead up to the separation, to the long and difficult absence, to the return. Military families are wrenched apart and expected to piece themselves together again and again. Somehow, they manage. They improvise. They take the strangeness and make it normal.

Which story came to you first? When did you realize you were on to something, that the stories of the families left behind at Fort Hood needed to be told?

The first story I wrote was the title story, about Meg listening through the walls and imagining what was going on in Natalya’s life. I felt a kinship to Meg and her eavesdropping; I was also listening in on the lives of those around me, paying close attention to the details, trying to weave the realities into fiction. I was a Family Readiness Group leader while I was writing most of the stories—meaning I was in charge of getting information about my husband’s company out to all the family members. He had a 160-man Infantry unit (and the Army Infantry, at least at this moment in American history, is still a job for males alone), so all of those spouses, all of those soldiers’ moms and dads, were calling and emailing me when the men were in Iraq. I suddenly had more insight into the military world than I’d ever had before.

Sometimes I look back and think of all the things I ought to have done. There were some very, very young spouses with multiple children, and no husband or family around to give them a hand. A few haunt me still. I think that guilt is filtered into the title story and I didn’t even realize it while I was writing. Meg thinks she is helping Natalya but in the end she knows she could have done so much more.

I was trying to capture a very specific moment in history, the “surge” of 2007—when troops were at an accelerated deployment rate. A large combined arms installation like Fort Hood was hit especially hard.

One of the strengths of this collection is the strong sense of place. I could really feel the heat, the isolation, the loneliness amid the crowd, and the often desperate sense of people hanging on, waiting for their husband’s safe return. Can you talk a little about how you created that palpable sense of lives on hold?

I’m a huge fan of “place.” I like to think of my settings almost as characters and try to flesh them out as such. I started to write this collection set in a nebulous, nameless base, thinking it would better represent all bases if it was never actually situated on a map. But I think it was when I finally gave in to the pressure of Fort Hood, using the road signs and firing ranges I glimpsed every day, allowing Texas to insert its horns and heat and wide swaths of land, that the stories started to come together as a true collection.

Now I am writing a novel set in Jordan and I find myself eagerly reading everything I can get about Amman, wanting to capture that particular world as well.

“Camp Liberty” is a particularly powerful story. It is set in Iraq, where we meet a compelling female character, interpreter Raneen Mahmood. Can you talk a little about Sergeant Moge’s internal conflict and its effect on him? As with the title story, the ending is surprising and heartbreaking yet it is entirely believable under the circumstances.     

Time and time again I would hear a young soldier say how much he was looking forward to “Getting Out” (which was the original title of the story, by the way). Entering the so-called real world as a civilian began to sound like an idyllic vacation in Shangri-La (especially as soldiers began to hear rumors about friends getting “stop-lossed” [having their tour of duty extended] before a deployment and being unable to leave the Army even if they wanted to). But a few minutes later, the same soldier and his buddies would start talking about Iraq or Afghanistan and I’d be struck with the excitement and vividness of their tales. None of their civilian stories had any of that heft and fire. And I couldn’t help but wonder if these soldiers really did want to be set free from the military.

I’ve spent quite a few years bartending at my father’s Irish pub and have heard more than my share of veterans’ stories. And they tell their war stories as if that time of their lives was their most intense, most important. I wanted to explore that dichotomy, how a soldier has to choose between a life he might relish in a certain way (the companionship, the adrenaline, the intensity, the knowledge that you are doing something for the greater good) with the security and complacency of civilian life.

Upheaval is intrinsic to military life with the constant moves and readjustments. A deployment naturally amplifies preexisting trouble in a relationship. We all know that relationships are hard work, but military spouses have the added stress of being separated for long periods of time, with the husband and wife living in worlds completely at odds with one another: America vs. a Third World war zone.

“Remission” involves the domestic tension between a mother and her 14-year-old daughter. While Ellen is dealing with cancer, “wild child” Delia is struggling with the insidious effects of loneliness, abandonment issues, and anxiety about both the present and the future, although she never says anything about these problems. Are parent-child relationships on base often this complex and fraught with passive-aggressive behavior? Are a lot of kids in therapy?

My eldest daughter was six months old when my husband last deployed to Iraq in 2009, and eighteen months old when he returned. So she was unable to articulate her feelings. While he was gone I tried to play a lot of video I had of him so she would be familiar with his voice and image, and I think that helped.  And nowadays a lot of people can Skype regularly with their deployed soldiers, even at some of the smaller and far-flung operating bases in Afghanistan. There are also amazing tools available to military families, everything from free Sesame Street DVDs about how to help kids handle deployments, to the USO recording soldiers at their forward operating bases reading a book aloud and then sending both the DVD and the book to the families at home.

Despite these efforts, I think kids might have the most difficult time; they can’t understand why a parent has left them. Kids are incredibly resilient creatures, but no matter how hard the Army or the remaining parent tries to mitigate the effects, the deployed parent is still missing a chunk of a child’s life, the birthdays and Christmases, the trips to emergency rooms and school plays. You add up multiple deployments and, well, I think it’s a tragedy.

There is a great national program, Military Family Life Consultants, a service available to all of our active duty military and their family members, that has representatives at most bases across the country. It’s confidential, free, very flexible. I think there is much less of a stigma for people to ask for help these days and Military Family Life Consultants is a supportive place to turn.

“The Last Stand,” “Leave” and “You Survived the War, Now Survive the Homecoming” (the fifth, sixth and seventh of the eight stories) address the return of soldiers to their wives and life at Fort Hood. They appear to be the heart of the book, when the men are no longer “gone” and assume key roles in the stories. In each story, the homecoming seems to be as difficult as the deployment, with the men fighting jealousy, family fragmentation, and phantoms from the war. Is it always difficult in one way or another, or are there some instances where the soldier’s re-integration goes well?

One of my husband’s commanding officers used to say, “Deployments make strong marriages stronger.” I think the inverse can also be true. Upheaval is intrinsic to military life with the constant moves and readjustments. A deployment naturally amplifies preexisting trouble in a relationship. We all know that relationships are hard work, but military spouses have the added stress of being separated for long periods of time, with the husband and wife living in worlds completely at odds with one another: America vs. a Third World war zone. A lot can happen in a year apart, especially when communication is difficult at best.

On the one hand, you have the spouse, let’s just say wife, and the person she depends on the most is suddenly gone. So she learns how to handle the household for a year. She disciplines the children, pays the bills, gets the oil changed, mows the grass. She has figured out how to manage on her own, this independence feels like an accomplishment, and she thinks her soldier will be proud of her.

Then her soldier returns home and it is, of course, amazing for the first couple of weeks. But he starts paying the bills and doesn’t like how she’s balanced the check book, or thinks she’s been too soft on the kids, or wants to watch Mad Men instead of Dancing With the Stars. There is bound to be conflict. He has returned to the place he has been dreaming about, and suddenly feels like he no longer belongs, that his family doesn’t need him. The kids have changed, they have new routines, and perhaps they can’t help but resent him. And meanwhile the soldier is dealing with his own problems, the completely different life he himself has led, being surrounded by soldiers twenty-four hours a day, where he had a very specific role to play, maybe he yelled a lot to get things done, maybe he cursed like a sailor, maybe he never had to wash his hands before he ate, not to mention maybe he was constantly in danger, maybe he was wounded, maybe he saw things no one should ever have to see.

And this man and woman, who have been apart for a year, leading utterly separate lives, are sleeping next to each other, sharing a bank account and the family car, helping the kiddos with homework. They have to learn to depend on each other again, knowing that in another year, they will probably go through the same cycle of separation. So ostensibly everything should be just great, the soldier is home and whole and safe, and yet there are new issues that must be dealt with, things that seem so small and unworthy after handling suicide car bombers and kidnappings, and yet these are the things that make up daily life.

I think women writers might more often focus on different refractions of ‘war,’ how its effects ripple outward, touching more than the soldiers immediately in its blast area.

So yes, it’s hard. But let’s not underestimate our military members or their families. Over a million U.S. troops have been deployed to the Middle East and Afghanistan since September 11th. Most of them return home after multiple deployments, manage to work through any transitional difficulties, and continue being great mothers and fathers, husbands and wives. My husband deployed three times and none of them were easy; I still only hear snippets of some of his darkest moments in Iraq and Afghanistan. But we’re very happily married. I think he is a phenomenal father to our two girls. Like many military families, we weathered the storm.

Your book and Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen were published in 2011; to the best of my knowledge, they were the first two books about the Iraq War written by women. Why do you think it took so long for women writers to start addressing the war? What happened to create critical mass for these two books and the flurry of others in the past few years? What do women have to say on the subject that men either don’t or simply haven’t said?

I think that our access to the war in Afghanistan and Iraq has been so immediate, with embedded journalists, blogging soldiers, and a 24-hour news cycle, that, at least in the beginning, there hadn’t been the pressing need for fictionalized accounts. And, though more than a decade of America at war in the Middle East is an incredibly long time, ten years in the writing world is not. There are almost ten years between Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Freedom. Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs deals with September 11th and it didn’t come out until September 2009. Fiction, especially good fiction, can take a long time.

I don’t want to say that women writers categorically can offer something specifically that male authors cannot (because then I would be implying that the opposite is true, and the idea that women can’t write about war, or about anything, is just silly; a fiction writer, by the very nature of writing fiction, should only be limited by talent and imagination, not subject).  However, I think women writers might more often focus on different refractions of ‘war,’ how its effects ripple outward, touching more than the soldiers immediately in its blast area. For example, you have Erin Celello’s recent Learning to Stay and Emily Gray Tredowe’s soon-to-be-released Blue Stars. Learning to Stay is about a soldier who returns with severe PTSD and the wife that cares for him. Blue Stars is about family members who tackle the return of their severely injured soldiers during the Walter Reed neglect scandal of 2007. Compare those novels to the predominantly male-authored short story collection Fire and Forget, written almost entirely by combat vets. Quite a few of Fire and Forget’s stories also navigate injuries sustained in combat, but they are told from the military member’s point of view. Celello’s and Tredowe’s works stand alone as great books, and also compliment and complete those works written from the military standpoint, which are more often written by men. (Aside: Mariette Kalinowski, a female Marine, also has a story in Fire and Forget.)

It’s balance. Symmetry. Laura Harrington’s Alice Bliss is a novel about a teenage girl dealing with her father’s deployment. Ben Percy’s classic story “Refresh Refresh” depicts teenage boys dealing with their fathers’ deployments. Each tale is incredibly different, as different as the authors who penned them. As with anything, I think the more perspectives and differing voices we get on the topic of contemporary war can only be a good thing.

How has You Know When the Men Are Gone been received by people in the military world? Any difference in the reaction of service members and spouses?

For the most part, I’ve gotten very supportive feedback from service members, spouses, gold star widows, veterans, children of veterans. I’ve been invited to speak at the United States Military Academy at West Point, as well as spouse club book clubs and veteran events from NY, Washington DC, Virginia, Nebraska, Florida, and more. But I’ve also gotten a few very, very angry emails. Some spouses feel I aired “dirty laundry” and betrayed our community by not showing a more positive side to life on base. They complain that my stories are too “dark.”  And I can understand that. We get the most protective about those we love most: our families, our friends, our communities. We want to always present our best to the outside world. But you also need to honor the difficulties so many families are facing by talking about it, letting the world see that there is more going on than flag waving at homecoming ceremonies.

I love the military community and feel very at home in it; I’m fortunate to have great military friends. But the stories of those who few who fell through the cracks haunt me, and it was their stories I wanted to shine a light on. I was trying to capture a very specific moment in history, the “surge” of 2007—when troops were at an accelerated deployment rate. A large combined arms installation like Fort Hood was hit especially hard in a way that perhaps not all military bases or posts were hit. It was important to me to honor the sacrifices that these soldiers and spouses were making. The vast majority of Americans aren’t married to a soldier—maybe they don’t even know one. I didn’t understand military life until I married into it. So it was important for me to give an unvarnished glimpse of life behind the front gates of an Army base in a time of war.

You’re currently living in the Middle East. How does the life of a military wife there compare to that life in the U.S.?

It’s funny, when I live in the United States, I am very aware of being a military spouse, always carrying my military ID with me, using my husband’s Social Security number as my primary source of identification, going to military doctors for treatment or commissaries and PXs for shopping. But when I’m living abroad, I’m just aware of being an American. Here in Abu Dhabi, I’m very careful about the way I dress or interact with people. Whether it is my own megalomania or actually the truth, I tell myself that some of the people I meet, Pakistani taxi drivers, Afghani rug dealers, Emirati school teachers, haven’t met any Americans in the flesh before. Maybe they only know our country according to action films or reality TV, and I want them to see another side of us, more respectful of their ways and culture, less wanton and flagrant of our own.

I’m always interested to know whom writers like when they assume the role of avid reader.  So who are your favorite writers? Favorite books? Are there a couple of books you think everyone (or at least should read?)

I have a soft spot for novels told by unreliable narrators, especially these days as I try to write my own novel narrated by a woman who may or may not have caused her closest friend’s death.

I’ve recently read a few stellar books: We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (I think it is one of the best novels I have ever read. I read it twice, it was so good, and it only got better on the second reading. I immediately tracked down Fowler’s email and sent her a gushing, besotted note when I finished it.); The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt; The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud; The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane.

Some of my favorite writers are Ann Patchett, Lorrie Moore, Jennifer Egan, Valerie Trueblood. All time favorite books are The End of the Affair by Graham Greene and Joan Didion’s The Book of Common Prayer.

What are you working on now, and when can we look forward to reading it?

I’m writing (and rewriting and rewriting again) a novel set in Jordan. It’s about two American women who become friends when their Army husbands deploy on a NATO mission. They have very different viewpoints about how to live in the Middle East, which sets off a series of miscommunications, leading to tragedy for one of them.

I have no idea when I will finish the damn thing! I’m working on my third draft. I began writing it when I was living in Jordan in 2010 and it started out as a short story that just wouldn’t stop.

I’m finding a novel to be such a different animal than a story. I can handle thirty pages. I can know exactly what is happening in every single moment, every gesture and snippet of dialogue, in a short story. But three hundred pages! Did my character already scratch her nose, eat hummus, mispronounce “goodbye” in Arabic? I don’t know! But, for the most part, when not feeling suicidal, I am enjoying the writing. And it helps to be living in the Middle East again as I write, to look out the window and draw inspiration from the world and culture here.


You Know When the Men Are Gone captures the wives’ war on the home front

You-Know-When-the-Men-Are-Gone  Siobhan Fallon

You Know When the Men Are Gone

By Siobhan Fallon

Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 2011

226 pages, $23.95 (hardcover)

240 pages, $14.95 (paperback)

Although several novels and story collections have been written about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last three years, Siobhan Fallon’s 2011 collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone, stands out. It is the only book that focuses on those left behind to wait at home: the wives, children, family members, and friends. Fallon, who is married to an Army officer, lived on the army base at Fort Hood, Texas while her husband served two tours of duty in Iraq. She became fascinated with the lives of the women on the base and the culture of coping created by those in the “rear detachment.” The eight interconnected stories here offer readers some insight into the many challenges faced by civilians who have married into the military life.  This is a world that receives little attention and about which we civilians know next to nothing. It is the invisible home front of the “war on terror.”

Fallon focuses her attention on wives who are adjusting to life as a single parent; they are trying to get on with their lives despite their loneliness and anxiety about their spouses in the Middle East, the burdens of child-rearing, worries about family finances (always tight), and frequent moves to new bases in strange places. Her personal experiences inform these powerful stories with a realism that makes them feel almost like non-fiction. We meet a strange and struggling war bride from Serbia (the opening title story), a mother struggling with both cancer and a sullen and rebellious teenage daughter (“Remission”), a young wife who fears her husband is having an affair with a female soldier while in Iraq (“Inside the Break”), another wife who wants out of the military life despite the recent return of her seriously wounded husband (“The Last Stand”), and a spouse trying to make sense of her husband’s horrific death in a fire-bombed Humvee (“Gold Star”). Through their circumstances and reactions, we begin to get some idea of what the hidden side of war is like.

The collection is balanced by three stories about the soldiers themselves and the impact their war experiences have when they return home. “Camp Liberty” follows Sergeant David Mogeson in Iraq, as he looks forward to the last few months of his commitment. He is on track to marry his girlfriend, Marissa, but something is amiss. His squad is assigned a new Iraqi interpreter, Raneen, for whom he slowly develops strong feelings. Circumstances beyond his control will determine which woman he will make his life with.

In “The Last Stand,” Sergeant Kit Murphy tries to put his life back on solid footing when he returns to Fort Hood with a serious injury. He soon learns that, while his physical condition is a problem he can solve (or at least adapt to), his personal situation may be out of his hands.

“Leave” is a thriller in which Chief Warrant Officer Nick Cash comes home without telling anyone, intending to surprise his wife. But all is not sweetness and light. He has planned to break into his own house in the middle of the night to conduct surveillance on his wife Trish, whom he is certain has been having an affair while he was overseas. He has brought all his wartime knowledge and skills home to Fort Hood, where he will put them to devastating use.

Fallon’s stories are so readable because she perfectly balances her character studies with compelling plots. She knows these characters intimately and, as a result, so do we. We experience their fears, their accomplishments, their dreams, and their heartbreak. Her observational skills are both journalistic (objective, documentary-like) and sympathetic. On the first page of the collection, she describes how “you know when the men are gone.”

“No more boots stomping above, no more football games turned up too high, and, best of all, no more front doors slamming before dawn as they trudge out for their early formation, sneakers on metal stairs, cars starting, shouts to the windows above to thrown down their gloves on cold desert mornings. Babies still cry, telephones ring, Saturday morning cartoons screech, but without the men, there is a sense of muted silence, a sense of muted life.”

In the title story, Meg wants “to worry about ordinary things like whether her husband forgot his lunch or got a bonus, not that he might get shot or that he’d be crossing a street in Baghdad and never get to the other side. She carried her worry night and day. It pulled at her legs and shoulders and tear ducts, always there and ready to consume her, because how could anyone think rationally about a spouse in a war zone?”

In “The Last Stand,” Sgt. Murphy’s wife, Helena, who has lived off base, surprises him upon his return with a change of heart. He thinks she has fallen in love with someone else in his absence. But she assures him there is no one else.

“Remember how good we had it?” he asked.

“Good?” She spun toward him, her hands on her hips. “You were always training late at the range and working weekends. Our apartment smelled like vomit and paint thinner from the last tenants. The neighbors had slasher films blasting all night. I was afraid to go outside by myself.”

“Inside the Break” explores the metaphor of the title. Kailani is a Hawaiian girl who wants to return home when her husband Manny comes back. Her internal struggles with jealousy, fear, and homesickness combine to make her feel as if she is “inside the break,” tumbling under the ocean like a surfer who has been thrown off her board by a powerful wave. “It had happened to Kailani often enough, each wave crashing on top of her just when she thought she’d made it out and could take a deep breath. Instead she would get all turned around, not knowing which way was up, and swim down toward the sand, choking, or come up just to get pummeled again. She knew she had to keep her cool, keep trying to paddle until she made it to the other side, surfacing in the undulating waters just beyond the point where the waves were set loose and wild upon the shore.” This is muscular but elegant writing.

In an interesting coincidence, one scene from “Inside the Break” depicts an anxious wife ending her phone conversation with her husband in Iraq by whispering, “Be safe. I love you.” This universal expression of fear and love is the title of Cara Hoffman’s excellent new Iraq war novel. (See review here:

The effect of reading the eight stories in Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone is that of a puzzle that comes together with a powerful cumulative effect. The reader comes away from this book understanding a side of the war he or she was unaware of before. You Know When the Men Are Gone is an indispensable contribution to the literature of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and military life in general.