In an Afterword, Klay alludes to the difficulty in stretching from stories to novels. But this sweeping, searing, wrenching and wise addition to the great literature of America’s postwar imperialism ends absolutely as mission accomplished.
In places the prose is clogged by detail. Klay’s own experience as a former US marine gives battle scenes authenticity but readers may not feel they need a lesson on treating an abdomen wound. Exposition about the Colombian conflict slows down the action. The book is at its best when the narrative is driven by the characters. Each starts by telling his or her own story, but for the denouement Klay turns to the third person, pointing up a truth about war: no-one involved can see the full picture or fully understand the implications of their own actions. As Abel says: “Sometimes it seemed like hell. And always, it seemed so much bigger than I had imagined”.
While exposing the sprawling web of American counter-terrorist warfare is an admirable aim, musings on military policy placed in the mouths and minds of the characters are heavy-handed: “This was an extension of the same war,” Lisette tells herself, “not the endless war on ‘terror’ but something vaguer, harder to pin down and related to the demands of America’s not-quite-empire, which was always projecting military power across the globe and just shifting the rationale of why.” Such reflections (this example goes on for a page) are superfluous; the brutality that Klay depicts so vividly is proof enough that there is no such thing as a “good war”.
Klay’s writing is uncluttered and impassive — the story is tricky (and grisly) enough without metaphors getting in the way. Here’s Mason helping a wounded comrade: “I pulled the stomach down, pushed two fingers past it, slippery, rubbery, until I could feel the aorta.” In Abel’s segment, someone gets strapped to a piano in a town square and sawn in half, to make sure locals know how to vote in upcoming elections.