Tuesday, February 21, 2012
The Soldier's Wife - Joanna Trollope
Alexa Riley is married to Dan, a Major in the Army, just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Joanna Trollope's new book explores the pleasures & pains of family life within the institution of the modern Army. Alexa was a young widow with a daughter, Isabel, when she met Dan, a career soldier. They married & now have three year old twin girls. Alexa has put her career on hold as the family moves to the tune of Army requirements. Isabel goes to boarding school & hates it. Alexa has had to deal with all the everyday issues of school, one of the twins needing glasses & the dog, Beetle, developing mysterious lumps, living in a house that isn't their own & that she wouldn't have chosen if she'd had a choice which of course she didn't. She has also had the offer of a job, a job that she knows she can't accept because Dan could be up for promotion when he returns & that will mean another move.
When Dan comes home from Afghanistan, Alexa knows that he will still be "in the zone" as the soldiers call it, for some time. Happy to be home, on another level, all the men crave the comradeship & stimulation of life in the unit. They are dealing with the culture shock of being home & having to deal with the memories of battle. As Dan's grandfather, Eric, another soldier who served in Aden in the 1950s, puts it,
It was easier on those bloody ships. Took for ever. Plenty of time to readjust, get bored. Now it's decompression like a bloody diver, wham, bang, out of ops and back in your own bloody bedroom with the wife wanting the moon and stars.
Dan retreats into life at the barracks, taking comfort from the routine, the hierarchy, drinking with his best mate, Gus, visiting the men who have been wounded. Alexa's frustration at her inability to really connect with Dan comes to a head when Isabel runs away from school & then Gus moves in when his wife leaves him.
The Soldier's Wife is an absorbing novel. Joanna Trollope immerses the reader in this world where order & discipline are paramount. Wives & girlfriends are expected to subsume their lives & the lives of their children into the Army way of life. In some ways, the Army's expectations haven't changed since Victorian times. To create an elite group of fighting men, they have to be broken down & then built up again in the Army's image, as a team, men who trust one another with their lives. Dan loves being a soldier but he also loves Alexa & his children & he struggles to find a way to be true to both. I loved the characters, especially Dan's father & grandfather, both old soldiers. They understand the stresses of Dan's life but they love Alexa & don't want to see the marriage fall apart. Alexa's parents are also concerned but more distant. Her father was in the diplomatic service & Alexa had been unwillingly sent home to boarding school so she can understand Isabel's misery. Alexa has gone along with the situation because she loves Dan but suddenly Isabel & the job offer push her to the edge of her tolerance.
In a way, this book harks back to the themes of The Rector's Wife, the book that was Joanna Trollope's first bestseller. It was the first of her novels I read & it's still my favourite. Anna Bouverie is struggling with the same problems that Alexa does. The Church is just as hidebound & inflexible as the Army. The wives & children of clergymen have the same struggle to be independent of "the job" as the wives of officers in the services. Anna says at one point, "I married the man, not the job. I'm not an outboard motor, I'm another boat." I love the way Joanna Trollope gets right inside family relationships & shows us all sides of a dilemma. The Soldier's Wife is a really satisfying novel.