A Canadian soldier, psychologically devastated by his combat experience, has difficulty telling the difference between nightmarish memories and reality in this debut novel.
Billy Wheeler joined the Canadian Armed Forces after graduating high school, thinking he could travel, earn a salary, and maybe learn a trade. He’s set to deploy on a peacekeeping mission to Bosnia, but before that he confesses his love to Emma Lane, his deceased friend’s wife, and she returns his affection. Emma becomes pregnant, and the two marry just before his six-month assignment. However, the peacekeeping mission turns out to be a cover for an unauthorized, clandestine operation against the Vipers, a brutal Bosnian insurgent group. Billy’s combat experiences weigh upon his psyche (as does news of Emma’s miscarriage back home). He’s tortured by guilt over a Viper massacre, for which he holds himself partially responsible. When he returns to Canada, he initially seeks refuge in alcohol, but receives treatment for his PTSD and recovers some sense of normality. On New Year’s Eve, however, he’s involved in a tragedy that leads him to accept a spy mission in Afghanistan. Again, he witnesses unspeakable atrocities and returns home scarred by the ordeal. Later, while on a seal-hunting expedition, he accidentally shoots a down a helicopter, killing three eco-activists. The remainder of the story is a complex courtroom drama. In this novel, Bennett attempts to braid several distinct themes into one coherent narrative; in addition to raising questions about Billy’s mental competence and legal culpability, the book also offers commentary on the tug of war between ecological activists and seal hunters in Newfoundland. Bennett’s creative aims are admirably ambitious and his depictions of battle are thrilling. But the story’s credibility is undermined by heavy-handed hyperbole: the chief environmental activist, for example, is essentially a sociopathic monster, and Billy’s troubles multiply promiscuously. As a result, the authorial voice feels pushy and overly assertive, which deprives readers of any interpretive space of their own.
This book’s combat scenes are skillfully rendered, but its plot is overly complex and lacks subtlety.