by Alison Buckholtz (author, Navy spouse)
“Transaction” is a word that wears a beige trenchcoat. It’s harmless in most contexts, like anything associated with banking or business. It’s that nondescript guy you pass while wheeling your cart into the grocery store.
But when you’re talking about marriage as a transaction — as Siobhan Fallon does in describing the relationship between a husband and wife in her new novel, The Confusion of Languages – that milquetoast man opens his raincoat to show he’s naked underneath. Suddenly, “transaction” seems threatening, even sinister. But it’s really just exposing a truth that’s always present – if you choose to look.
Fallon looks. Her new book delves deep into the transactional nature of marriages, friendships, and the in-between mountain of feelings that build up between men and women who connect deeply with each other, either soulfully or sensually, while remaining (or striving to remain) platonic. As in her award-winning collection of short stories, You Know When the Men Are Gone, Fallon’s literary world is peopled with military wives living in communities where boundaries breathe life into each tour, deployment, or posting. These military wives (just like real-life, nonfictional ones) are women whose roles are culturally circumscribed and yet in flux, bound by convention while open to possibility.
But how open, exactly? In our generation, military spouses are technically emancipated from the strict rules that dictated the behavior of past eras’ “waiting wives,” but still wedded to the institution that created them. So there’s no definite answer. That’s simultaneously the promise and the problem of being a military wife today.
Fallon knows this because she’s a military wife as well as a writer (as am I). Her husband’s Army service has deposited her at overseas embassies in the Middle East throughout the last decade. That’s shaped her understanding of how the military spouse culture-within-a-culture mirrors the experience of Americans living abroad as they try to navigate seemingly simple situations that end up disarming or destroying them with the complexity of unwritten assumptions and unintended offenses.
Fallon cannily chose to place her newest military spouse characters in an overseas embassy – in Jordan, at the start of the Arab spring, when the Middle East began convulsing with change. Like a set of nesting dolls taken apart, played with too roughly, and cracked beyond repair, Fallon shows how each character’s experience damages them past any possibility of fitting neatly back into their allotted slot.
In The Confusion of Languages, Margaret and Cassie are the military spouses who start out wanting to fit in. Margaret is newly married (to Crick), with a baby that came before the engagement. She’s young and pretty, and because she devoted her adolescence and what started to become adulthood taking care of her sick mother, she longs for adventures and new experiences. Marriage to Crick, who wasn’t ready to settle down and had already decided that if he did it wasn’t going to be with Margaret, offers her the promise of something entirely different from what she has known. As a new mother, and a military/embassy spouse in a conservative Arab country bubbling with unrest, her freedom is limited. But she refuses to resign herself to sitting at home.
Cassie continually reminds Margaret of those limits. She is Margaret’s sponsor in Jordan, assigned to shepherd her through life in a new land: the military spouse world as well as the embassy world as well as the American-woman-in-Arab-world world. It’s a lot to do, but Cassie is ready and able to instruct. Cassie, who longs to have a child but can’t, feels ostracized from the rest of the embassy families, and although she feels burdened by the responsibility of looking after Margaret, she also sees the opportunity for an intense friendship — a one-on-one, exclusive pairing that could “keep the desolation away” during her husband’s deployment.
Cassie sees from the start that Margaret is a little off. Margaret says the wrong thing to her husband’s boss’s wife, befriends the Jordanian guards at the embassy, feeds stray cats outside her apartment building, and shows her arms and ankles in public, despite urgings to cover up and comply with local norms. There’s nothing in writing that says DON’T DO THESE THINGS, but they’re against the rules nonetheless. When Cassie schools Margaret in how to behave, Margaret chafes, but she’s been lonely her whole life and is glad to have a friend. So the unlikely pair, like mismatched socks worn to stay warm, stick together.
Except that Margaret gradually creates a life in Jordan that Cassie knows nothing about. When Margaret goes missing, Cassie finds her journal, and throughout the course of a day and night, Cassie discovers how far astray Margaret has gone. Other things are revealed, too: Margaret’s sad past; a double betrayal she can’t forgive herself for; two very different cultural collisions with local Arab men that spiral into life-altering nightmares for everyone involved, whether they’ve tried to follow the rules or not.
Fallon’s fast-paced, compelling story doesn’t sacrifice nuance or sensitivity when it comes to portraying the way well-meaning Western women and well-meaning Arab men, striving to understand each other as fellow humans and friends, confound each other. And it doesn’t flinch from showing how not-so-well-meaning Westerners and Arabs steadfastly refuse to acknowledge nuance, choosing instead to reinforce their worst beliefs in each other and enforce social compliance at all costs.
It’s to Fallon’s credit that we understand and sympathize with even those characters who are not very well-meaning, who impel the plot toward its very real, not just cultural, collision. Unlike a car accident, no one here is at fault. Just as phrases in other languages can be impervious to translation but still understood, so are these characters’ motivations. What we do understand is enough to draw us close to them.
Fallon is at her best when Cassie and Margaret are struggling to confront the truth about themselves and those in their inner circles. But it’s worth noting that descriptions of Jordan, where the women live and where Fallon and her family were posted for a few years, are equally piercing and precise – the scenic nation is a compelling character playing a starring role. During one of Cassie and Margaret’s hair-raising car trips, for example, Fallon lays urban, chaotic, Amman at our feet: “The speed bumps, the unmarked construction that shut down lanes or entire roads, the taxis weaving with white doilies on their headrests, the jaywalkers suddenly stepping out in front of you, and the cars, dear God, the cars driving as if there were blind men behind the wheels. You couldn’t help but be flooded with adrenaline.”
Readers are also granted a glimpse behind the scenes at the work of American embassy personnel in a Middle Eastern country undergoing a seismic identity shift. Each night, Margaret’s husband Crick lays out before him that day’s Arabic-language and English-language newspapers, scanning to check which outlets run certain items and what gets left out. “He thinks the truth is in those spaces,” Margaret thinks as her husband compares and analyzes. “He knows an awful lot about how to read what’s meant to be hidden.”
Fallon does, too. And as she exposes what people try to hide from themselves and each other – and the consequences of those selective omissions – she prompts us to look more closely at the elements of our own lives that we publish in one place but not another, or omit from public view entirely.
Fallon, Siobhan. The Confusion of Languages. Putnam & Sons, 2017.
buy The Confusion of Languages here and visit Siobhan’s web site and blog. [There’s a particularly amusing & informative slide show of Fallon’s own Jordan photos here, featuring everything from the Amman Citadel to Hijab Barbies and “fresh lamb balls.” You want them fresh or not at all, I hear. –Editor]
About the Author:
Siobhan Fallon is the author of the 2012 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Fiction winner You Know When the Men Are Gone. She is also the recipient of the 2012 Indies Choice Honor Award and the Texas Institute of Letters Award for First Fiction. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post Magazine, Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, Military Spouse, The Huffington Post, and NPR’s Morning Edition, among others. She was raised in Highland Falls, New York, just outside the gates of the United States Military Academy at West Point. She graduated from Providence College and spent a year at Cambridge University in England. After teaching English in Japan, she earned an MFA at the New School in New York City. She and her family moved to Jordan in 2011, and they currently live in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Her new novel, THE CONFUSION OF LANGUAGES, out on shelves June 2017, can be pre-ordered now. Booklist has given it a starred review, calling the novel “an incisive examination of friendship and betrayal and a skillful mingling of cultural and domestic themes.”
About the Reviewer:
Alison Buckholtz is author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War (Tarcher/Penguin, April 2009; in paperback April 2013). She wrote the “Deployment Diary” column on Slate.com from 2009-2010, and her other articles and essays have been published in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Real Simple, Parenting, Washingtonian Magazine, Salon.com and many other publications. As an advocate for military families, she has appeared on NBC Nightly News, NPR, and in national news stories. Her L.A. Times op-ed, “An ‘It Gets Better’ for the troops,” was the inspiration for a national public service announcement campaign about military suicides.
She received an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Virginia and a B.A. in English Literature (Honors, Phi Beta Kappa) from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She also completed a year of undergraduate study at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1997-98 she lived in Jerusalem, Israel as a recipient of a Dorot Foundation postgraduate fellowship. She now lives in the Washington, DC area with her husband, an active-duty Naval officer, and two children. You can follow her on Twitter at @alisonbuckholtz and visit her web site here.