You Know When the Men Are Gone
  by Siobhan Fallon

Amy Einhorn Books
2011
Paperback
First Collection

Awards: Longlisted, 2011 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize







"He imagined that they would sit close together at the coffee shop, his knee hitting hers under the table, how she would wear a white blouse and he would glimpse her collarbone and her long skirt would reveal her ankles. Maybe she would wear her hair down and it would fall in front of her brown eyes. He never took the fantasy further than that, never held her hand or kissed her throat or unbuttoned her blouse, just sat with her in the shade of a big umbrella, sipping strong coffee, talking."


Reviewed by Maura O'Neill

"Siobhan Fallon tells gripping, straight-up, no-nonsense stories about American soldiers and their families," says the New York Times review. NPR opens its review with, "The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been fought in an age of embedded reporters, soldiers' blogs and YouTube videos from both the battlefield and the home front…Debut author Siobhan Fallon employs the more traditional, low-tech medium of short fiction to describe the lives of soldiers, and especially their families, in her new collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone."

Agreed. But while this collection is a welcome short-fiction treatment on the lives of contemporary soldiers, the women who wait for them, and the struggle to hold family together, it is also about the universal human experience of loneliness. The quality of being alone, like a thick, gray light, shrouds these stories. And, whether deliberate or a side effect of artistic focus, the characters in these stories are emphatically alone: Even parents or other family members who might relieve the pioneer-like struggle are only peripherally and rarely mentioned.

Meg, childless, and waiting for her husband’s return from deployment, listening in on Natalya, the mother of two children next door, who engages in late-night, tearful phone conversations in her native Serbian; Ellen, the breast-cancer victim enduring a harrowing day, searching for her missing children on the base and navigating the rough waters of parenting a teen-aged girl; Nick, suspicious that his wife is cheating on him, sneaking into his own home to conduct a days-long reconnaissance mission in his basement; Kit, the wounded soldier returned home from deployment to find he’s lost much more than his physical integrity; or, Moge, the investment banker turned Army sergeant, feeling more comfortable with his fellow soldiers than he does with his family, and more connected with a female interpreter in Iraq than with the girlfriend waiting at home: These men and women are unsure, confused or afraid, seeking connection but always overtly alone.

Fallon introduces the collection with a quote from The Odyssey: Penelope is considering whether to welcome Odysseus with affection or to hold back in fear of impending death or loss. And that’s how it is, isn’t it? As human beings, we’re all solitary entities, gazing out from where we are situated in our bodies and considering our options: Do I embrace this other soul? Will I be hurt if I do? Should I instead protect myself from pain and keep my distance? If I am hurt by this person, will I feel less lonely if I strike out at them, if I leave them, or if I forgive them? What will I lose or gain if I ask for help or offer it? Where can I find hope, warmth, or connection? How am I recognized or known in this world? Who can help me feel less alone?

One might assume that giving the stage to this more desperate aspect of the human condition would make for a depressing literary work, but this is where Fallon shows her strength as a writer, crafting stories that are balanced compositions of dark and light. One of the most engaging aspects of You Know When the Men are Gone is the small light cast artfully upon the smallest acts of kindness and struggles with conscience — not overdone but, rather, organic, subtle, approximating what life is really like. For example, in this excerpt, Meg stands by Natalya, otherwise ostracized in the title story:
She didn’t reveal that Natalya’s mother had been killed when she was young, nor did she mention that she had loaned Natalya money. Keeping secrets made her feel as if she was betraying the wives and she felt sweaty and flushed in the room of women.
Throughout, the reader is kept close enough to hear the breathing of these characters moment by moment as they struggle, decide, act… and either triumph (at least momentarily) or lose hope.

So, while You Know When the Men are Gone successfully treats one topic that deserves the in-depth, up-close attention that Fallon gives it, the collection is recommended here, ultimately, because—I don’t know a better way to put it—the experience of reading it is like the first few moments of consciousness after a night’s rest: glaringly honest, clear, full of depth and the potential for insight. It skillfully addresses the solitary nature of the human condition and leaves the reader enriched. 



Read an excerpt from a story from this collection on SiobhanFallon.com



Maura O'Neill has always been a willing victim of any good story, told well.

Maura's other Short Reviews: David Gardiner (ed) "Solid Gold Anthology"
                     
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Siobhan Fallon is the author of the collection of interconnected stories, You Know When the Men Are Gone, Amy Einhorn Books/Penguin. Her stories and essays have appeared in Publishers’ Weekly, Women’s Day, Good Housekeeping, New Letters, Salamander, among others, and she is currently writing a monthly fiction series for Military Spouse Magazine. She earned her MFA from the New School in New York City. 

Read an interview with Siobhan Fallon