Thursday 15 May 2014

Be Safe I Love You - Cara Hoffman

With a partner away in Afghan at the moment I have been a little wary about starting this one; I had heard good things but if it was as good as I had been hearing then I wasn't totally sure I would be up for reading it right now. I finally got up the courage to make a start on it and read it in one go more or less.

Be Safe is a unforgiving look at the impact of war shown through the reactions of three generations of interlinked people living in small town America. The majority of the story links around the return home of Sgt Lauren Clay, a gifted singer who enlisted for her tour of Iraq in order to earn enough to give her little brother a better start in life than she has had. Lauren has had a tough life, as the story unfolds it becomes clear that she has been the person responsible for both her little brother and her deeply depressed father since her mother abandoned the family when Lauren was ten. She has spent her whole life being capable and looking after others, so a tour as an NCO with the US Army seems to be a natural progression, especially as the signing bonus and pay will change the life of her whole family. She comes home from her year in Iraq a changed woman; harsh, brittle, unyielding and tattooed. Her friends and family have all managed to move on with their lives in the time she has been away, their lives may not be satisfactory but they have still managed without her. They welcome her home, but are too caught up in their own issues to fully notice or appreciate the changes in her nature.
The story moves forward using all of the different characters and switching between timelines, to build up a full and complete picture of Lauren's life before enlisting, and to show her reactions and steady breakdown once she returns home. Clearly we can see that something deeply traumatic has happened to her during her tour of duty. She is starting to display increasingly worrying signs; home is now nothing but a FOB, she is irritated that her orders are no longer obeyed unquestioningly, and she shows her willingness to use her new skills to inflict pain and bodily harm even on those she cares for. Both her ex-boyfriend and her little brother are subjected to her blows as she attempts to dominate the one and train the other.
Lauren is determined to 'rescue' her little brother, Danny; and plans to do this by heading north into Canada to meet up with her old army buddy and make a new life free and away from the rules and idiocy of society. She is also determined to avoid speaking to the Army Psychologist who is trying to clear up a few irregularities in Sgt Clay's discharge interviews.
The tension builds masterfully, as Hoffman keeps the reader in the dark as to what it is that happened in Iraq, and we are left knowing that we should be worried but unsure as to how far Lauren is willing to go in order to 'live free'.
This is a blunt and raw depiction of how much combat and trauma in the military can devastate the life of those who serve as well as the lives of their loved ones once the come home. Drawing in older characters who have served in Vietnam and the first Gulf War helps keep this from being an attack on any specific conflict, and opens the story up to a more general attack on the dangers of a lack of ongoing care after combat has ceased. I also get the feeling that the length of US tours of duty are being criticised, especially ones that involve RnR periods in theatre. The disassociation from friends and family, and the dislocation from the real non-military world is a major theme in the story.
I would say that this is a powerful novel, however I did feel a little let down by the neatness of the ending. Everything just came together, with all loose ends simply brushed under the carpet. I have to say that even this somewhat trite ending couldn't diminish the impact of the novel too much for me. I don't think it quite had the power of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk or Yellow Birds, but it should go down as one of the important modern novels about the impact of war on the generation that is currently serving.

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