Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017, 336 pages
It's 1991. Near Checkpoint Zulu, 100 miles from the Kuwaiti border, Thomas Benton meets Arwood Hobbes. Benton is a British journalist who reports from war zones in part to avoid his lackluster marriage and a daughter he loves but cannot connect with; Arwood is a Midwestern American private who might be an insufferable ignoramus or might be a genuine lunatic with a death wish - it's hard to tell. Desert Storm is over, and peace has been declared, but as they argue about whether it makes sense to cross the nearest border in search of ice cream, they become embroiled in a horrific attack in which a young local girl in a green dress is killed as they are trying to protect her. The two men walk away into their respective lives. But something has cracked for them both.
Twenty-two years later, in another place, in another war, they meet again and are offered an unlikely opportunity to redeem themselves when that same girl in green is found alive and in need of salvation. Or is she?
This is a book set in modern Iraq, past and present. Twenty years ago, an American soldier and a British journalist found themselves at the ass-end of nowhere in the Iraqi desert. Both bored and looking for purpose, they strayed into a little desert town moments before it became the latest target of Saddam Hussein's wrath, in the aftermath of Desert Storm. They watched Iraqi forces slaughter civilians, pulled one young girl out of the town, and then, as U.S. soldiers stood by ineffectually, the girl was shot.
Twenty-two years later, Thomas Benton, the British journalist, gets a phone call from Arwood Hobbes, the American soldier, who got a "bad paper" discharge and has been traveling the world ever since. A video of Iraqi villagers being shelled by ISIS that has been broadcast around the world shows a girl in a green dress, moments before she disappears in an explosion. Hobbes believes it's the same girl. Benton knows this is impossible, but as his marriage is falling apart and his career is at a dead end, he calls in the few favors he has left, and goes to Iraq to meet Hobbes.
This is a war story, but really more of a post-war story. Both Benton and Hobbes, it becomes clear, were broken by their experience in Iraq twenty-two years ago. Unable to save all the civilians being slaughtered around them, they managed to save one, only to helplessly watch her be murdered after all. The possibility of saving her again, even if it couldn't possibly be the same girl, even if they are chasing a ghost, is what brings them both back to Iraq, and sends them on a suicidal mission into ISIS territory. They are both tightly-wrapped bundles of unacknowledged PTSD, and as their stories unravel along with their psyches we learn what war did to them.
While Benton and Hobbes are the main characters, though, the book isn't just about them. As they are repeatedly reminded, by the Swedish NGO officer, by well-intentioned and naive aid workers, and by the Arabs and Kurds around them, many more people are suffering and dying and can't leave. The Westerners know they have it better than the people trapped in these hellish circumstances, but that doesn't make their own hell any less bad. Their mission is one of redemption for themselves more than a real belief they can save one girl, let alone do anything to change the war that has never really stopped.
The author doesn't offer any simple answers, or simple characters. Arwood Hobbes acts like a madman, loud-mouthed and spouting BS, except when he isn't, and sometimes coming off as a stereotypically arrogant American jerk with a superiority complex... until we learn just how much he's been doing to try to help the people he saw unable to save twenty-two years ago, and how badly he's been damaged. Benton just seems like an old man in his waning years, bitter about never becoming a star journalist, and running away from a difficult relationship with his wife and daughter. Except he's also been badly damaged. The two of them want peace, and are about as likely to find it as anyone still living in Iraq.
There are fights, and a few moments of heroics, but the heroics stand out more when they are the acts of bravery by civilians who are armed with nothing but nerve and wits. Some of the heroes are Westerners, others are the Kurds and Iraqis and Yazidis. The villains also range from banal American officers who do nothing and let evil triumph to Iraqi officers who get their hands dirty doing the evil, to ISIS fighters genuinely believing in their bloody jihad.
The girl in green is the quintessential MacGuffin. She's just one life in a war zone, but she makes the plot happen. Derek Miller writes a clever, skillful, and sometimes bitterly funny set of multiple stories, telling each character's perspective as they all move towards the climax. I liked this novel better than his first book, Norwegian by Night, which was also a pretty good and unusual story with unusual protagonists. He is showing himself to be an author of some versatility and whose plots are not easily predicted.
Also by Derek B. Miller: My review of Norwegian by Night.
My complete list of book reviews.