A female Italian soldier returns from Afghanistan physically and psychologically wounded and unsure how to start over.
After years of proving her mettle in a sexist Italian military, Manuela was given the command of a platoon in Afghanistan and only barely survived when a suicide bomber attacked the opening of a girls school. As the novel opens, she’s returned home to a small coastal resort town on Christmas Eve to recuperate, and her family—particularly her extroverted sister, Vanessa—is unsure how to help. No matter: Manuela’s attention soon turns to Mattia, a mysterious man who’s the sole occupant of a nearby hotel, and over the course of the following weeks, the two pursue an awkward romance. This novel, Mazzucco’s second in English translation (Vita, 2005), runs on two alternating tracks: a third-person chronicle of Manuela’s present-day recovery and her first-person recollection of her rise in the military and deployment. The latter thread is made of much stronger stuff, revealing Mazzucco’s close research on soldiers and the war in Afghanistan, as well as Manuela’s determination to overcome slights as a female leader to earn the respect of the men serving under her. When Mazzucco strains to suggest that everyday life is rife with similar calamities, she’s on shakier ground; Vanessa’s despairing attempt to find a morning-after pill doesn’t have the same gravitas as a war wound, nor does Mattia’s secret, revealed in the book’s climax. The novel fills an important gap in addressing the lives of female soldiers (and non-American ones), but in its effort to make Manuela’s tale symbolize multiple aspects of military and civilian life, Manuela herself gets a bit lost. Her PTSD, curiously, is treated as relatively minor in the face of holding a family together or finding true love.
An important addition to 21st-century war literature, if a flawed one.