The author of the odd, haunting What Happened to Henry (2004) does even better in her powerful second novel about the inescapable consequences of war and lies.
Narrator Iris Sunnaret initially depicts her childhood with adoptive parents Eleanor and Charlie Jackson as secure and idyllic, complete with patriotic Fourth of July barbecues. But then her brothers go to serve in Vietnam in 1968, and word comes that Eddie is dead and Perry is missing. Older sister Angie, enraged that Charlie and Eleanor allowed the boys to enlist, starts an affair with their son Hank (raised as a brother to the four Sunnarets) and gets involved with radical groups protesting the war—anathema to Charlie, who served with the Sunnarets’ father in the early days of the Indochinese conflict and has always run his household along strict, military-influenced lines of order. “Everybody had his place,” remembers Hank in one of the novel’s most chilling scenes, explaining why Iris’s father had killed the children’s dog while home on one of his infrequent visits from the Far East. Girls rank above dogs but below boys and men; where grown women fit in is unclear, but the gradually emerging facts about the death of Iris’s mother suggest that being the wife of a warrior was intolerable for her. Angie had protected baby Iris from their mother’s increasing mental instability, and as her illusions about the past drop away, Iris struggles to reconcile the embittered adult sister who frightens her with the aunt and uncle whose complicity with evil she now recognizes but whose love she cannot reject. There are no easy answers in Pywell’s rich narrative, which seems to offer Shakespearean serenity in the final scene (another Fourth of July party), then slaps readers in the face with a brutal reminder of the cost at which this serenity was achieved.
The best examination of political and moral issues within the framework of family life since Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (1991). Pywell has a gift for capturing the complexity of sibling relationships that is all her own.