Why aren’t there more contemporary literary novels about life in the armed services? In our current era of war and militarism, we need stories about the men and women and children who bear the brunt of this experience, both in the field and at home. Joanna Trollope is a phenomenally popular English writer whose novels often center on domestic drama or romance. Admittedly, at first I wondered whether a mega-selling author (whose many, many books translate easily to made-for-TV movies) could successfully mine the subtle complications of military life, with its shifting ever-present layers of class and history. But Trollope’s latest novel—published in the United States by Simon and Schuster—set me straight. A moving story about a marriage under pressure, “The Soldier’s Wife” is rich with perfectly observed details about how one family copes with deployment and leave.
Dan Riley is a major in the British Army, just returned from his third tour of duty in Afghanistan. His wife Alexa juggles taking care of their young twins as well as her teenage daughter from a previous marriage. Life on the garrison base isn’t what she’d dreamed of—although fellow “waiting wives” and friends keep her sane, the uniformity, rigid rules and lack of privacy chafe at a more modern woman. Dan tries to cope with traumatic memories and several horrific injuries to his men by seeking out the company of soldiers instead of his family; Alexa aches that “the many might be back in person, but hardly seemed to be in spirit.” When their daughter Isabel rebels from her Army-mandated boarding school—petty theft and running away—neither parent has the equanimity to handle the crisis. We watch, saddened but not surprised, as Alexa and Dan drift away from each other instead of reuniting.
One intriguing aspect of the novel is its English setting; the doubled lingos of military slang and Britishisms contribute to spiky unique language that neatly encompasses the Rileys’ dilemmas. They have rows and try to get sorted, but their struggles to incorporate war into family life ring true to American readers also suffering the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. Trollope steers clear of politics or any overt condemnation of the war—a character remarks off-handedly “one wishes it didn’t look so hopeless, but of course, history is against us”—and keeps her focus tightly on the domestic realm. The addition of perspectives from extended family members, Dan’s father and grandfather, Alexa’s parents, may strike some as unnecessary or possibly confusing. But Trollope’s point is clear—war impacts every member of a family, from the youngest to the oldest, no matter who does the actual fighting. (Emily Gray Tedrowe)
“The Soldier’s Wife”
By Joanna Trollope
Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, $15