A Marine commander returns home from Iraq badly shaken in this novel, which wears its heart—and its research—on its sleeve.
Conrad entered the Marines shortly before 9/11 with an ambition to do something big: He studied Greek military history in college, admiring the discipline of city-states like Sparta (hence the title) but neglecting that place's undercurrent of hubris. Returning home after two tours in Iraq to his sturdily middle-class family outside New York, Conrad is incapable of shaking off his experience. Loud noises snap him into fighting mode; suburban buildings and trains appear to him as easy targets; and simple conversations with his family and his on-again, off-again girlfriend become torments. Robinson (Cost, 2009, etc.) consulted with Iraq War vets and a stack of books to construct Conrad, and she is masterful at capturing the various ways that language fails to depict the misery of PTSD; she subtly shows how everything from emails to prescription information sheets to official forms offer ways to only talk around the problem. Conrad struggles to find his footing in the months after his return, gamely preparing for grad school and reconnecting with college friends, but he slowly slips off the rails as he begins to self-medicate. Between the detailed flashbacks of wartime violence and the visions of stateside anxiety, Robinson has convincingly summarized the wartime experience, but only rarely does it feel like she’s made a full person out of Conrad, who has the distant feel of an Everyvet; his interest in Greek history comes across as more a convenient metaphor than character shading. As Conrad's decline accelerates, Robinson hurries the pace of the closing chapters, undoing the fictional rhythms of a book that at times has the declamatory tone of a nonfiction study.
A well-intentioned but flawed exploration of an underdiscussed topic.