reviewed by Andria Williams (Navy)
In Rachel Lynch’s first novel The Dependants, a trio of British Army officers’ wives living in military housing endure their husbands’ deployments to Afghanistan.
Here in the U.S., we use the word “dependent” as both an adjective and a noun: someone who is dependent on another person can also be a dependent. In British English, dependant is a noun only, and refers specifically to the spouse and children of a military member. The three dependants featured in Lynch’s novel are Maggie, Jane, and Chrissy.
Let’s start with Maggie, because the novel does. Maggie is a young mother of two who is, quite simply, at her wit’s end. She’s struggling with parenting a difficult three-year-old daughter and toddler son; she feels she’s given everything up for the Army, including any career hopes she’d ever had; and she’s consumed with resentment over the fact that her husband volunteered for this dangerous tour of duty.
Next there’s generous, likable Jane, mother of four, whose marriage is rock-solid. Jane’s not happy about her husband’s absence and fears for him daily, but her attitude toward her own predicament remains alternately bittersweet and dryly comical. She tumbles into bed in his PJs, drinks a little too much, cheerfully encourages other women to buy vibrators (and she’s got the brand to recommend). She’s mostly patient with her kids and goes along to the gym gamely with Maggie even though she finishes off most workouts with a nice, big slice of cake. When she witnesses what she fears is the beginning of Maggie’s infidelity, then, we have grown close enough to her viewpoint to feel her shock and dismay at the same time as she is relieved to finally see her friend in some way happy.
The oldest and most experienced of the three wives is Chrissy, whose husband Jeremy is the Commanding Officer. As devoted to the Army families back home as her husband is to his men in the field, Chrissy makes the unusual decision to live alone in The Patch, the regular Army family quarters, rather than take a fancy Colonel’s house elsewhere while her husband is gone. Some of the wives find this off-putting and strange, but as Chrissy attends one funeral after another and assumes a heavy psychological burden in doing her husband’s work at home, the other women gradually come to respect her.
Over their husbands’ seven-month deployments, the three women will weather a variety of challenges and temptations, from Maggie’s infidelity to Chrissy’s emotional exhaustion. They don’t know from one minute to the next whether or not their husbands will make it home, and the reader doesn’t either, so this tension runs constantly beneath the entire novel. We know from page one, though — which opens with the radio reporting three more soldiers killed in action in Afghanistan — that the decisions these women make and the fates that befall their husbands will have repercussions far beyond just the time these families live together in The Patch.
Rachel Lynch, the author, is a former Army wife herself; the book’s jacket mentions that her family moved ten times in their twelve years with the Army. Throughout the novel, you can feel the tension that many military wives feel in their love-hate relationship with the institution that dictates much of their families’ lives. For young Maggie, this struggle is hardest. In fact, her anger toward Mark, and the Army in general, is sometimes startling:
It made her stomach churn and she remembered the moment when he had delivered the news like an excited puppy that he had volunteered to command troops in Afghanistan. Volunteered? What was wrong with her? What was so ugly and undesirable that he would want to leave his wife and children to kill strangers and satisfy politicians and generals in Whitehall? Something had died in her that day.
I was worried at first that Maggie might be too bitter for me to hang in there with for long. Her daily life, with all its struggles, was so realistically wrought that I could feel myself starting to grow a little bleak along with her. But Maggie soon starts to pull herself out of her dark hole through a new prescription for anti-depressants, a nightly bottle of wine, and a revitalized interest in both exercise and younger men.
Maggie’s humanness is believable, and where she had scared me off a little at the start, I soon found myself invested in what would become of her and her family. The scenes where her husband Mark returns for a two-week R & R in the midst of his dangerous deployment were heartbreaking and very well-done. Everything is touch-and-go. At first, Maggie finds herself nearly fearful of being with him, and their first attempt at intimacy is a bust. The second try goes much better, with a good bit of steamy sex thrown in. But a family day trip proves most harrowing of all, as Mark finds himself unequipped to handle his preschool-aged daughter Bethany’s strong emotions. When Bethany acts up in the car, he spanks her on the leg, hard. It’s something Maggie has fantasized about at darker points in the deployment — having him on hand to swoop in with some kind of decisive corporal punishment that Maggie lacks the energy or resolve for herself — but when he does do it, the effect is mildly sickening for all of them. From that point on his stay at home never regains the sweetness of their early intimacy, and part of Maggie is relieved when he returns to Afghanistan. It’s sad, bittersweet, and well-done, and I have to commend Lynch for having the insight and fortitude to pull it off.
Overall, The Dependants is a heartfelt look into the lives of Army wives, from someone who’s been there. I cared about these characters and I wanted to see them reunited with their husbands in the way we get to enjoy in You Tube videos and the nightly news. Rachel Lynch knows better, and we’re not treated to that kind of ending. But what she gives us is, in its clear-sightedness and compassion, worth much more.
Lynch, Rachel. The Dependants. Austin Macauley Publishers, 2014.
Buy The Dependants
Read more about The Dependants here
About the author:
Rachel Lynch was a history teacher for over a decade and after having her family decided to become a personal trainer. Her husband’s job as an Army officer has moved her family ten times in twelve years. Rachel has been writing since she was a teenager but this is her first novel. She is now settled with her family near London after finally saying goodbye to army life. — Austin Macauley Publishers author page