Mother’s anguish is no Greek tragedy

Eleven Days

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Delia Fal­coner Delia Fal­coner’s

By Lea Car­pen­ter Two Roads, 288pp, $38.99 (HB)

SERENDIP­I­TOUSLY, as I was read­ing this novel about a mother whose son goes miss­ing over­seas on a US spe­cial forces mis­sion, Amer­i­can critic Daniel Men­del­sohn pub­lished an on­line med­i­ta­tion on Bos­ton’s re­fusal to bury al­leged marathon bomber Tamer­lan Tsar­naev.

The Greek classics, Men­del­sohn ar­gues, are pre­oc­cu­pied by eth­i­cal anguish about the un­buried: the Iliad, for ex­am­ple, re­volves around Tro­jan Priam’s des­per­a­tion to bury his son, Hec­tor, whose body Greek Achilles dis­plays. Lea Car­pen­ter also ac­knowl­edges Homer’s epic as the main lit­er­ary in­flu­ence on her un­der­stand­ing of war.

But she gives a dif­fer­ent Greek story a cen­tral place in her novel; it is handed on a piece of pa­per to Sara’s son, Ja­son, when he is wa­ver­ing in his com­mit­ment to the SEALS.

In 480BC Leonidas, king of Sparta, faced the choice of se­lect­ing 300 of his soldiers to fight an un­winnable bat­tle against Per­sian forces. He based his de­ci­sion not on their abil­i­ties or ex­pend­abil­ity but on the strength of the women in their lives. ‘‘ Af­ter such great loss, he rea­soned, if the women fal­tered in their com­mit­ment, Sparta would fall. The rest of Greece would think it use­less to stand against the Per­sian in­vaders. The demo­cratic flame that started there would be ex­tin­guished.’’ This is not a quote from an­other Greek clas­sic but part of a speech by a cap­tain Pete van Hooser in the US congress’s 2005 trib­ute to its Navy SEALs — one that, like the ar­chi­tec­ture of Wash­ing­ton’s Capi­tol, casts Amer­ica as the in­her­i­tor of the great demo­cratic tra­di­tion that be­gan in an­cient Greece.

Ev­ery­thing that works and doesn’t about Car­pen­ter’s novel can be found in this mix of sources. Eleven Days is blurbed as a book about the strength of mother love. Its ti­tle refers to Sara’s ter­ri­ble pe­riod of wait­ing to find out what has hap­pened to her cher­ished only child, 27-year-old Ja­son, who has dis­ap­peared on de­ploy­ment over­seas; she does not even have the small com­fort of know­ing where. This be­ing 2011, the press is parked out­side her door in her small Penn­syl­va­nia town.

As we saw in the ex­cel­lent small 2009 film The Messenger, the mil­i­tary’s de­tailed pro­to­cols cover ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing vis­its from ca­su­alty no­ti­fi­ca­tion of­fi­cers. Th­ese men ar­rive, and stay. Then there is the mil­i­tary’s in­for­mal net­work: Sam, an old buddy of Ja­son who has been in­valided out of ser­vice, ar­rives to do any­thing he can for Sara. Sara, from hip­pie stock her­self, is both tough­ened and made more vul­ner­a­ble by the fact that Ja­son’s dead fa­ther, whom she met in Wash­ing­ton, was al­ways lost to her on mys­te­ri­ous govern­ment busi­ness. And while she reared her re­mark­able son as far away from this en­vi­ron­ment and his pow­er­ful god­fa­thers as pos­si­ble, he nev­er­the­less chose a phys­i­cally and men­tally gru­elling vo­ca­tion with the SEALs over her plans for him to go to Har­vard.

This wait is grip­ping. But Car­pen­ter has a lot to load into her story. Eleven Days is also a mys­tery story about Ja­son’s ab­sent fa­ther, David, and about the gulf be­tween the­ory and prac­tice in Amer­ica’s over­seas en­gage­ments. It takes us back to Ja­son’s mil­i­tary train­ing; his let­ters home, in which he of­ten dis­cusses mil­i­tary ethics and lit­er­a­ture with his mother; and his re­la­tion­ship with his cur­rent girl­friend, who just hap­pens to be an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of his­tory at the Univer­sity of Rich­mond, from a mil­i­tary fam­ily, and knows about myrrh trees in the Horn of Africa.

But above all, Eleven Days is a homage to Amer­ica’s spe­cial op­er­a­tions per­son­nel, open­ing with the kind of terse scene-set­ter one might ex­pect at the be­gin­ning of a crime novel or mil­i­tary thriller, out­lin­ing the ge­neal­ogy of the SEALs (the Navy Se­abees and Scouts and Raiders, and World War II un­der­wa­ter de­mo­li­tion teams). This pro­ce­dural fas­ci­na­tion with mil­i­tary rules, ord­nance and acronyms con­tin­ues strongly. On the one hand, it gives us a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into a world se­cret to most civil­ians. On the other, it can lead to not atyp­i­cal sen­tences such as this: ‘‘ Her brother was at Dam Neck, a mem­ber of the Naval Spe­cial Wel­fare De­vel­op­ment Group, or DEVGRU, or Six, the one Team whose line on the NSW org chart skipped Coron­ado and went straight up to JSOC.’’ Car­pen­ter seems just a lit­tle too in love with the mil­i­tary and the of­fi­cials who helped her with her re­search.

This is less a ques­tion of ide­ol­ogy (though Aus­tralian read­ers might find the al­lAmer­i­can­ness of this book alien­at­ing) than a first nov­el­ist’s lack of courage in fac­ing what Frank Moor­house calls the ‘‘ agony of omis­sion’’. An ex­cess of de­tail, ex­po­si­tion and lit­er­ary ref­er­enc­ing comes at the ex­pense of ac­tual show­ing. When Ja­son is do­ing his gru­elling Hell Week night runs dur­ing his early train­ing, for ex­am­ple, one of his team­mates yells out the Henry V St Crispin’s Day speech to keep him go­ing. How won­der­ful if we had been able to see this rather than have the fact re­lated in pre­cis.

There is good writ­ing here and a great story. But the Greeks might have been of most help in terms of dra­matic struc­ture. Unity of ac­tion, unity of place and unity of time: th­ese were their rules for tragedy. Any of the ap­proaches Car­pen­ter com­bines here could have pro­duced a strong book, but its emo­tion is sapped by a lack of fo­cus.

Mem­bers of a US Navy SEAL pla­toon on a land war­fare ex­er­cise

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