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By Roxana Robinson. Sarah Crichton Books. 400 pages. $27
Thursday, July 4, 2013
Roxana Robinson’s “Sparta” is an insightful and penetrating look at the readjustment wartime soldiers have to make upon returning to the United States. Unfortunately, “Sparta” also suffers from some missteps that sometimes mar the narrative.
The book follows Marine Conrad Farrell’s return from Iraq; his efforts to reconnect with his family and with himself form the crux of the work.
“Sparta” starts on the plane ride home, and the reader is immediately informed of Farrell’s post-traumatic stress disorder, although he is too stubborn to call it that just yet. This trend continues throughout the novel: Basic human connections become a struggle for Farrell, and Robinson hits a perfect note on the first few pages. Farrell’s interaction with the flight attendant, who thanks him for his service, explores a rare aspect of the veteran’s experience: how the mere thankfulness of complete strangers can be an annoyance as well.
As the novel progresses, though, Farrell continues on his path toward understanding himself and his new psychology. He finds minor solace when he talks with other veterans, but his mother and his girlfriend — as well as every civilian he interacts with on a daily basis — are almost completely alien to him. They, like Farrell, are well-drawn, and they also try to find the hard-to-reach center between comfort and understanding.
Farrell eventually decides to seek help for his symptoms, and Robinson tries to capture the often indecipherable machinations of the Veterans Affairs in the latter portions of the work. Although Robinson credits numerous works and some soldiers for helping her with most of the material in the book, the VA is portrayed as a monolithic entity that dispenses medication and poor advice, but only after a massive wait. This all may be true, but Robinson struggles to find a balance herself: The VA is at once difficult and somewhat accommodating, especially if Farrell employs a few neat tricks. This, unfortunately, creates a source of overwhelmingly artificial tension, and instead of sharing Farrell’s frustration with the VA, or even remembering the news articles about the roach-infested VA hospitals, the reader is left with the impression of: well, that was easy.
The VA, therefore, seems to barely supersede the inconvenience of the local DMV, and is certainly not an organization so poorly run that it directly shouldered the blame for numerous soldiers’ illnesses and deaths.
Unfortunately, Robinson also overwrites the ending. While the narrative itself comes to a somewhat graceful conclusion, Robinson inserts a few paragraphs immediately afterward that make for a bizarre switch. While some would call these paragraphs — a paean to the Spartan warriors who faced long odds — poetic, they also would have been better placed, if they were absolutely necessary to the narrative, at the beginning of the novel, or even as a dedication.
Still, “Sparta” functions well, even when Robinson becomes heavy-handed, and it is a testament to her ability that even as she sometimes overwrites she still produces a readable and interesting journey for her characters and her readers. For those looking for a character-driven novel — and, let’s face it, that’s a rarity these days — “Sparta” works well.
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