A mother considers the fate of her son, a Navy SEAL, with equal measures of intellect and heartbreak in this debut.
Carpenter introduces Sara, the lead of this assured novel, in a state of high anxiety: Her son, Jason, has been missing after a mission went awry, and though his fellow soldiers and military brass are supportive, details are scarce. With too much time to think, she considers her affair with Jason’s father, a high-ranking diplomat, and her son’s unlikely transformation into a top-tier warrior. Carpenter alternates between Sara’s perspective and Jason’s, the latter allowing her to display the depth of her research into brutal special-ops training and the curious equipoise that great soldiers possess. Indeed, the novel contains a lengthy bibliography, underscoring the story’s chief flaw: Its descriptions of life in the Special Forces at times obscure Jason’s character. Yet Carpenter isn’t piling on factoids à la Tom Clancy, and her prose throughout is elegant and considered. When Sara’s wait for news ends, the story picks up more drama and tension, but the emotional temperature ticks up only a degree or two; this is ultimately a novel about how everyone, from soldiers to diplomats to parents, semisuccessfully attempts to keep their balance amid the wild inexplicability of war. In the process, Carpenter explores the mythmaking elements of warfare, from training folklore to the dissembling that authorities reflexively engage in. In that regard, the relative coolness is an odd but welcome shift in the war novel. Stripped of either satire or extreme violence, it lingers on the cold inevitabilities of conflict, which makes it a highly moral anti-war novel without noisily announcing itself as such.
Though clinical at first glance, this well-turned story packs plenty of emotion. Among the smartest of the batch of recent American war novels.