Sunday, September 22, 2013

Review: Sparta by Roxana Robinson

 Last night, I finished a real hard cover print book which I read in about 48 hours. I very seldom have the physical strength to hold a book for that long, or the mental wiring to single-task and sit still for that lengthy a stretch, but Sparta: A Novel by Roxanna Robinson BLEW. ME. AWAY. I could not put this one down. I did not want to read another book about the Iraq war. I did not want to read anything else grim, dark, or depressing. But since it was one of my required reads for Maine Readers' Choice, I dove in and told myself to get it over with.

I can't begin to get my thoughts ordered enough to write this one the review it deserves, but I can sing its praises to the heavens. Have no doubt-- this is a meaty book, with a subject matter that many of us find distasteful, but it is an exquisite piece of extra words, no fluff, instead it's a bold, brazen, heart-wrenching look into an anguished soul; it's a panic attack-producing introspective view of what is happening to an entire generation of this country's (and maybe the world's?) young military aged people who have gone off to serve their country with high hopes of changing the world, only to return to a world they don't know, don't understand, and a world that doesn't seem able to understand them or help them cope with the traumas they've endured. They may come home in pieces physically, or they may return looking intact, but they are all fractured indelibly from what they've done, what they've endured, what they've seen and heard and smelled and experienced.

The story is about Conrad Farrell - New England upper middle class classics major in college, enamored of the ancient Spartans and the purity of their thoughts, who decides after graduation to do "something real.. something that will make a difference" by accepting a commission in the US Marines. As a Marine leader, he is responsible for his men, and goes off to Iraq to engage in the carnage that was Fallujah and surrounding area battles. When he returns after four years, he is irrevocably changed and unable to settle back into a world he no longer recognizes.
"You don't get it. I'd love to do this....Change. I can't. Something's not working. All you do is tear me apart. I'd like to be back here with you all, but I'm not. You don't get it. I'm not here. I'm not home. I'm still there." p. 348
His family (parents, brother, sister and girl-friend) are devastated when their efforts to understand are scorned, all offers of help are ignored or rejected, when they see him sinking further and deeper into non-functioning desperation and are forced to stand by helplessly. His inability to articulate his problems compounds the tragedy. The VA is not much help. (The book is set in 2006). His mother, a professional therapist, is particularly upset:
"I know what I'm supposed to do....I do it all the time as a therapist...but I can't do it with Con.  I can't do it.....I'm not supposed to reach out to him.  He doesn't like it.  I can see that.  If he were a client, I'd tell myself to stop....I'm too afraid.  I can't leave him alone....What kind of a therapist! What kind of a mother!  I can't stop."  p. 340

It should be required reading in high school, in college, at our military's officer training academies and War Colleges, and by all who are in the unenviable position of treating these returning veterans both physically and mentally. Ultimately, it's not only an indictment of our mental health care system, but of our national caring system, our national conscience, and the conflicted value system of leadership and patriotism.

Ultimately it's also a book about hope, and love, and caring, and never giving up.  Go get it, go read it.  It's definitely going to be one of my top five of  the year.

Many thanks to Sarah Crichton Books for making this available for review.

Author: Roxanna Robinson
Publisher:Sarah Crichton Books (Farrar Staus and Giroux) (2013), Hardcover, 400 pages
Genre: Literary fiction
Subject: War trauma and mental illness
Setting: New York
Source: Review copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book now? It was given to me to review for the Maine Readers Choice Awards Committee.

1 comment:

  1. I saw this book in the store for the first time yesterday, but hadn't heard anything about it. Now I'm wishing I had picked it up! What a wonderful review, I'll definitely keep an eye out for it now.


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