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Separation Brings Sorrow In Army Wives' Stories

Siobhan Fallon's husband, an Army major, has been away for half of the six years they've been married — deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. The experience has not been wasted on her. She gives us a rare insider's view of the domestic face of war in her powerful, eye-opening debut collection of eight loosely linked short stories, You Know When the Men Are Gone.

Fallon's stories, set in "the Great Place" — Fort Hood, Texas, the largest Army post in the United States — focus on the terrible strain of long separations. She vividly captures the loneliness and anxiety of months of waiting, and the anticipation, nervousness and unbroachable chasms surrounding soldiers' returns, with both husbands and wives unable to speak of what they've endured.

Her characters include Capt. Roddy's wife, Ellen, battling both breast cancer and a difficult teenager, and Kailani Rodriguez, who, when she doesn't hear from her husband Manny for weeks, hacks into his e-mail, where she finds disturbing evidence of infidelity with a female soldier. Chief Warrant Officer Nick Cash, whose work in Iraq is filled with "lies and lies and lies, the shifty informants with their misinformation and subtleties lost in translation," sneaks home on an unannounced leave in search of "a single and undeniable truth," determined to establish with certainty whether his wife has been cheating on him.

Two particularly moving stories involve Spc. Kit Murphy, whose wife, Helena, greets him after he returns seriously wounded from the inferno of an improvised explosive device, or IED, with the announcement that she's leaving him: "I love you, but I don't think I can do this anymore. I want to be home." In a later story, he visits the desolate 26-year-old widow of Sgt. Schaeffer, whose body shielded Kit from the worst of the flames. Josie Schaeffer asks urgently, "Did he mean to save your life?" In other words, did her husband knowingly sacrifice his life and, by extension, her own?

Fallon's inside scoop on this closed community is an advantage, but her literary prowess is the major draw; she skillfully wields fiction to penetrate more deeply than even the most finely observed reportage. Her psychologically nuanced portraits show extraordinary sympathy for both the deployed soldiers and their transplanted families soldiering on alone, far from their own families and friends, however flawed their devotion. In the moving, engrossing title story, we share Meg Brady's fascination with her aloof new neighbor, the beautiful, unhappy Serbian war bride, Natalya, and her twin toddlers. Meg, like many of the wives in Fallon's stories, questions whether the constant separations are a sustainable way of life for her. Noting that Staff Sgt. Torres divorced his first wife after meeting Natalya in Kosovo, where she was cutting hair at the base, Fallon writes, "They knew she could happen to any of them."

You Know When the Men Are Gone is written with verve and nerve. Each story is planted with carefully calibrated, emotionally explosive devices that detonate on cue, bringing flashes of truth. And like the deployed men they illuminate, you keep thinking about them when they're gone.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.