Review: You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon
Genre: Contemporary Short Story Fiction
Release Date: January 20th, 2011
Source: Personal Copy
At the Fort Hood military base outside of Killeen, Texas live many military spouses, mostly women. Whether their significant other is off fighting in other parts of the world or working long hours in an office across town, these women must learn to deal with the stress of running a household alone and many must wonder daily whether their husband has survived another day of war. Siobhan Fallon writes eight loosely interconnected short stories that delve into the personal lives of military families and offer an inside look into their homes, friends, and marriages.
You also 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 throw 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.Ms. Fallon's collection does an excellent job of examining the different aspects of life as an army wife from the friendships formed with other wives to the effects that a returning injured soldier has on people. There is the story of Meg, a woman who becomes obsessed with her new neighbor, Natalya, and begins spending her evenings listening to her every move through the paper thin walls of her army housing apartment. Ellen's story about a woman diagnosed with cancer who spends the day searching for her missing children highlights the fact that just because your husband works on the base does not mean that he is around. My favorite of the stories is the tale of Cristina Diaz, who must confront the possibility that her husband is cheating on her with a female private in Iraq.
From start to finish I really enjoyed this collection. While there is definitely heartbreak and bittersweet undertones, You Know When the Men Are Gone offers a compassionate look at military families dealing with effects of both deploying and returning soldiers that I don't think is often acknowledged. There are many themes that Fallon explores such as infidelity, loneliness, anxiety, and doubt that are universally applicable and to which any reader can relate. The sense of loss, whether it is a spouse, a limb, or a life, hangs in the air of most of the families in some way or another, and I found myself wanting to reach out and comfort many of the characters.
Overall, You Know When the Men Are Gone really stood up to the test that I think many short story collections fail. The prose was crisp without coming across as overly simplistic. The detailed sense of place that Fallon created over the course of the eight stories highlights Fort Hood as the main character. The place comes alive with the sights and sounds of military life when the men are overseas. Most of these stories take a seemingly mundane moment in the life of a military wife and explores it with care and compassion. I was actually quite surprised at the lack of political commentary regarding the war that usually accompanies this genre of stories, but I appreciated that Fallon kept the focus on the universal effect of the war on military families regardless of their viewpoint.
Once I picked this one up I couldn't put it down and finished it in about a day. I think this book would be a good one for readers who typically don't enjoy short story collections because each tale feels fleshed out given the limited pages, and I didn't find myself disappointed or confused. Anyone with interest in a realistic portrayal of life for a military family or in collections with multiple character studies will probably enjoy this one as well.