Iraq War veteran and Virginia native Powers has transformed his experiences in Mosul and Tal Afar into a story that captures both the intimacy of comradeship and the larger impact of the war on soldiers’ lives. And while many of the situations are brutal, Powers’s beautiful language redeems this story of combat and survival.
Privates Bartle and Murphy are a team, though hardly of equals. At times, it seems as though the eighteen-year old Murphy could hardly have passed the minimum intelligence level to even join the Army, but Bartle takes very seriously the role of protector assigned to him by their sergeant and by Murphy’s mother. In training, in garrison, and in combat, Bartle watches over Murphy, but there’s one place he can’t protect his buddy: Murphy’s own mind.
While Bartle and Murphy’s relationship is the center of the story, there is a third man who looms over them. Sergeant Sterling is their team leader, a career soldier who earned the Silver Star during his first rotation, and who has no illusions about what they are going back to. He shifts from moderate affection to fierce protection to anger at the hapless soldiers he can’t keep from harm. But Sterling has a dark side as well, with self-preservation trumping all other emotions.
Bartle narrates the story in multiple timelines, but each seems immediate rather than recalled from experience. As he shifts settings, the reader comes to learn more about his transition from civilian to warrior, and from warrior to guilty survivor. He holds back the worst of his experiences until he can no longer hide them from himself or from those who turn to him to understand what happened in Iraq. It often escapes the reader that Bartle is only in his early twenties—it seems as though the trauma he has experienced has aged him out of his youth.
While this is not an emotionally easy read, there is pleasure to be had in Powers’s manipulation of language, setting, and character. His skill at these belies his own youth, and we can only hope this first novel will be followed by many more.
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