ELEVEN DAYS by Lea Carpenter

Book Quote:

“The call came late on May 2, the first day of what should have been the last ten days of Jason’s fifth tour. First, last, fourth, fifth: everything in military life involved numbers — or letters.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate В (DEC 11, 2014)

In a blog that she wrote for the Huffington Post, Lea Carpenter notes that eleven days was the period of truce negotiated between King Priam and Achilles in the Iliad after the death of Hector — an encounter movingly narrated by David Malouf in his novel Ransom. It is an appropriate reference for many reasons, not least the almost classical values that Carpenter both celebrates and espouses in her storytelling; this gripping debut novel is immediate in content, ample in moral perspective, rich and thoughtful in its human values.

Yet its modernity makes Carpenter’s work quite different from Homer or Malouf. Jason, her male protagonist (yes, the reference to the Argonauts is deliberate), is a Naval SEAL officer on his fifth deployment overseas — pretty clearly somewhere in the Middle East. His mother Sara, a young single mother living at Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania, is told that he has been missing for two days. The rest of the book follows her for the remainder of the eleven-day period until he is located. It also follows Jason in flashback over some eleven years, as he swaps the idea of Harvard for Annapolis after 9/11, graduates, and undergoes the extraordinarily demanding SEAL training in Coronado, California.

It is significant that this is a war novel written by a woman. You might expect authenticity in the portrait of a mother waiting at home for news of her only son, but her ability to provide empathy without a trace of sentiment is quite remarkable. Even more remarkable is her portrayal of Jason’s life, with enough military detail to rival Tom Clancy, and yet always focusing on his inner life; to call it spiritual would not be far from the mark.

In the same Huffington Post blog, Carpenter says that one inspiration for her novel was an old photograph of her father, who was some sort of special forces agent in Vietnam. Another was the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, just as she was beginning to write. It is an impressive attempt to imagine what her father must have gone through then and what those young men in the Middle East were going through now. Something of the lost father figure comes through in the novel in the person of Jason’s father, David — an older man probably connected with the CIA, who loved Sara and continued to support her from a distance until his death in the 1990s. Jason’s attempt to live up to his idealized image of his father is a large part of his motivation; we eventually come to realize that he has greatly exceeded it. Carpenter cannot really fill David out, though, and she is wise not to try. Her main focus is on these two younger people, mother and son, and her empathy with both is extraordinary.

As a pacifist, with little patience for the jingoistic flag-waving of the past decade, I am amazed by how much I liked this book. Yet Carpenter’s achievement is to make politics vanish in the light of simple humanity.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 48 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf (June 18, 2013)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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December 11, 2013 В· Judi Clark В· No Comments
Tags: , ,  В· Posted in: Contemporary, Debut Novel, Middle East, Reading Guide, Washington, D.C.

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