You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon is a collection of eight short stories focusing on deployed military and the families they leave behind on base in Fort Hood, TX. The stories are loosely connected and present the low hum of anxiety that permeates the lives of the military and their families. As they move through life's mundane tasks - making meals, attending doctor's appointments and walking the dog - the persistent worry and awareness of absence relentlessly chips away in the background.
Each story is written precisely and sparely which communicates a tension that is ever present in the lives of these military families. Many stories deal with infidelity or the threat of infidelity as either the solider or the spouse left behind tries to assuage their loneliness with the company of another. This theme reminded me that the soldiers and their families give up more than just time with their loved ones- they also give up a sense of security and belonging that those of us in civilian life take for granted. In one story, "Remission", Ellen, a breast cancer survivor, is one of the few women whose husband is home while almost all the others are deployed. While she copes with fears of a return of her cancer, Ellen also competes with the military and the war in Iraq for her husband's time and attention. John is preoccupied with his peers serving in battle and his responsibility to do whatever he can for the families they have left behind; he all but abandons his own wife in family as he tries to take care of everyone else.
Like John, many of the soldiers that return home are plagued with the effects of the time spent at war and an ever present sense of duty. There are the obvious physical effects - Kit's injured foot ("The Last Stand") but more pernicious are the psychological effects that are carried back from war. From night terrors that disturb sleep to problems with alcohol and meds which interrupt precious family time, these soldiers return changed and, in turn, their families are forever changed.
This collection of stories is beautifully written but what I enjoyed most about the book was how it opened my eyes to the extent of sacrifice made by the military and their families. I always understood the risks they took and the extended time spent away from family but I didn't appreciate the constant anxiety, loneliness and isolation that can plague soldiers and their families. Above all, I didn't appreciate how the sacrifice continues even after soldiers return home and even leave the military - their loved ones are forever changed and they live with the effects of war, physical and psychological, forever.