294pp, hardback, £14.99
Reviewed by Alison Burns
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a cumbersome name, covering many different kinds of trauma. There should probably be a simpler, starker one for the peculiar hell of the returning soldier.
This heartfelt novel tells the story of Lauren Clay, beloved sister and daughter, who comes home unexpectedly from Iraq, at Christmas. Home is Watertown, a small base town in upstate New York; it is her father Jack, the eternal ineffectual hippy, and her devoted younger brother Danny, whose life she has put before her own since she was fifteen. It is also the place from which Lauren’s promise as a classical singer might have taken her to concert stardom.
Driven by concern for her brother’s future security, Lauren chose the army instead of music school. Someone has to put food on their table, meet the mortgage payments, and it surely won’t be her father or her absentee mother. She also bought Danny a dog: ‘And she felt good because she was getting their lives in order.’
Now Lauren is back, out of the blue. First port of call is her high-school sweetheart Shane, who is also home for Christmas, but from graduate school. There is a huge gulf between them: she is not the girl she was, and has no words to tell him what she has seen and done in the name of duty. They go to bed; it is as sad as it is sweet.
Lauren revisits old haunts and old friends, including Holly, who got pregnant in her teens and now serves at the bar where Shane’s decrepit uncles drink. She looks up Troy, her singing teacher, who heard the budding Callas in her and tried to steer her to greatness, away from the poverty of their small-town life. Meanwhile, army psychologist Dr Klein keeps leaving urgent messages. There is something awry in Lauren’s return.
As this tender but chilling narrative unfolds, the flawless voice of soprano Joan Sutherland and the purity of Arvo Part’s music ring out. Lauren kidnaps her brother, ostensibly en route to visiting their mother. The true destination is a fantasized reunion with a comrade. Lauren prepares herself and Danny for this encounter in a frozen wasteland, where she trains him for survival. Whether or not she will survive what she has witnessed is the whole subject of this moving and scary novel – which says more about the distance between those who go to the battlefront and those who stay behind than a million newspaper reports.