In her previous novels, including Cost, Roxana Robinson more than earned her merit badge as explorer of the gnarly beast that is a family in crisis. Her stunning new novel, Sparta, covers this same turf through 26-year-old Marine Conrad Farrel’s return home. The novel opens with a simple line—“There was a change in the engine pitch”—in a paragraph that ends as simply: “He made himself relax.” Behind the unpretentious language is a novel so beautifully structured that its short first paragraph describes the entire arc of the story that follows.
“Four years, two deployments in Iraq—Ramadi and Haditha—and an honorary discharge.” Now Conrad is arriving home without physical injury and looking even better than he did when he enlisted, thanks to military discipline and his own personal drive to stay fit and strong. Still, as he and his men deplane, his parents fail to see him. “Have we missed him?” Lydia asks, and Marshall replies that they must have. “But how could we?” Lydia responds in a passage that goes on to reflect her fear that her son has somehow been lost.
And indeed Conrad Farrel has been lost. The war has ended for him, but his battle for survival has just begun, and with it the struggle of those who love him.
Robinson begins to depict the four years Colin has spent in Iraq in a moving passage that considers the ways soldiers in country connect to home—words that echo Tim O’Brien’s short story, “The Things They Carried.” Internet is sparse in Iraq, and with phone calls “[b]oth of you were trying to put too much into words, more than was possible.” Letters, though,
you kept them in your pocket or under your pillow, if you had one. You put them inside your helmet … your boot or your locker, someplace where they were safe and you could touch them. Sometimes you just wanted to run your fingers across the envelope, that was enough; sometimes you wanted to take the letter out, unfold it, and read it again so you knew you’d had another life once, been part of another world.
The longing for letters subtly foretells the challenge soldiers face arriving home, too: the desire to embrace loved ones, and the impossibility of exposing any emotions for fear they will all tumble out and the person the war has made you will be revealed.
One of the many, many strengths of this novel is the appeal of Conrad, the son or brother or friend or lover any of us might have had. He’s a smart, likeable guy. Before the war, he was a fine student at a fine college. He was really good to his girlfriends and to his family and friends. He joined the military for the noble reasons the best of young people do: to test himself, and to make a difference in the world.
Indeed, every main character in this nuanced novel is likeable, and doing his or her best. Con’s parents, a university professor and a therapist, love their son. Perplexed at his decision to enlist, they nonetheless try to support him. His brother and sister are also good sorts.
Most compelling is Con’s relationship with his college sweetheart, Claire—his girlfriend or his ex-girlfriend, he’s not quite sure. Claire understood Con’s enlistment no better than his parents did, and she remained loyal to him in the way women of past generations remained loyal to soldiers. Where many people in relationships with people who enlist today (young men and women alike) would be daunted by the divide of four years and a war, Claire waits—at least until a disastrous few days the two spend together while Con is on leave. She may still be waiting.
But unlike past generations of women, Claire is her own person. She is compassionate and loving on Con’s return, but unapologetic that she, too, has lived in the intervening years. She has moved to New York and begun a career, made new friends. When Con questions her actions while he has been in Iraq, she is clear that her choices have been hers to make just as his have been his, and he has no more right to question her actions than she had to question his decision to enlist.
Robinson delivers this relationship in truly heartbreaking passages revealing Claire’s emotional journey as completely as Con’s. When Con asks directly and indelicately about Claire’s sex life in his absence, she responds with patience. She tells him he scares her, in a way that somehow says she loves him, too. She has seen other men, as she’d told him in her letters. “But I’m not going to talk about them the way you want to talk about them. You don’t have the right to talk that way.” If Con and Claire are to go forward together, they will be taking into consideration her needs as well as his. We can’t imagine their relationship can survive. We can’t imagine it won’t.
Even with Claire, Conrad is unable to reveal himself. The things he’s seen and done are not things he wants anyone to know about. Con’s family and Claire are all quite sure they will love him no matter what he’s done, but the reader feels Con’s dilemma. Would any of us be able to see him the same way, knowing the details?
Con is reluctant to turn to professional therapy, a nice irony given that his own mother is a therapist. He sees the need for help as weakness—a view amplified by his military training—increasing his isolation as well as the frustration of those who love him, and whom he loves.
To some extent, he can turn to his men—the “infantry grunts” with whom he served, who share his experience. But he was an officer. Even in country, “he did what his men did, but apart.” The solace he finds in his email exchanges with the survivors is tempered by his focus on their difficulties. As the officer, even now that the war is over, he feels the responsibility to keep spirits up.
And so, despite everyone’s efforts to put this world back in order, Conrad is left absolutely alone, fitting in nowhere, comparing himself to his classmates who didn’t enlist and finding himself falling behind in the game of life. Claire and his family are left trying to help him, and failing, too. The novel switches back and forth between the present and the past, delivering an utterly compelling demonstration of good people faced with the fallout of one young man’s struggle for nobility. At one point, Conrad questions the very notion of fitting back into a civilian world. Why does he need to fit into this world? Why, given all he’s sacrificed, shouldn’t everyone who stayed at home now be trying to fit into his world?
The villain in Sparta is, of course, the world of war. The book’s most brutal scenes explore the moral consequences of the way America wages war and the support—or lack thereof—we give those who put their lives on the line for us. The details are hinted at early in the story, again in short, simple paragraphs, as Conrad lies awake on one of many sleepless nights spent in his boyhood room:
He tried to keep Haditha from his mind, but how could you keep a thought from your mind? The thoughts lived in his mind. The dark spray on the wall. So much of it, so high up. The limp bodies on the bed. The terrible limpness. The boy in the stained pajamas, the girl’s arm curled around him …
Wasn’t there some kind of therapy that blotted stuff from your memory? … How was he meant to get rid of it? … He’d been trained to make things happen. What you did was carry out the mission, get it done. No excuses.
This is what he had to look forward to; this was every night for the rest of his life.
The U.S. military structure is held up for examination and found terribly wanting. Robinson spares nothing that comes under this particular microscope, from one excruciatingly cruel scene in boot camp to the final Catch-22 of the way the military deals with PTSD.
Sparta puts readers right into the best of circumstances for returning soldiers—the life of a physically unscathed soldier surrounded by love, with resources to help him and the intelligence and fortitude to return to civilian life. In showing the impossibility of this one man’s homecoming in a story we can bear to read—and Conrad’s story is compulsively readable—Robinson focuses attention not only on him but on less fortunate soldiers as well, and on the people around them who share the cost of war most directly. Sparta should be required reading for anyone making decisions at any level about where our military should be sent, and how they should be treated on their return.
Meg Waite Clayton is the author of four novels, including The Wednesday Daughters.