Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
Lizzie's War: A Novel
Lizzie's War: A Novel
Tim Farrington
HarperOne, 2005
384 pp., 24.95

Buy Now
The Missing Person
The Missing Person
Alix Ohlin
Knopf, 2005
304 pp., 22.95

Buy Now

Betty Smartt Carter

Only Connect

Two novels about finding—or failing to find—a structure of meaning in the mess and confusion of our lives.

I like Tim Farrington's new novel, Lizzie's War, but not because its Vietnam-era story is unique or surprising. Those were turbulent times, and turbulent times catch up writers in their wake. Many novelists have now written about the struggles of soldiers in an unpopular, possibly unjust, war. What makes Lizzie's War distinctive is the way it treats the battlefield and the homefront as parallel and equal fields of conflict. A soldier's bitter struggles are no less grueling than his wife's struggles at home. Eventually the marriage itself becomes a third battlefield, where husband and wife have to fight their way through years of distance and resentment in order to save their union.

Farrington paints an emotional picture of the O'Reillys, a Marine family so absurdly loyal that they celebrate the anniversary of the Marine Corps' founding every year with a green cake and a blaze of candles. Captain Mike O'Reilly is in Vietnam, leading his first solo company through some of the worst combat of the war so far. His son Danny knows Corps lore backward and forward and imagines battle in a glow of glory. For Danny's mother, though, war is a rival, a cruel mistress that claims her husband, body and soul. What Liz O'Reilly fears most in life is a knock on the door, Marines in dress greens on the front step, waiting to tell her that Mike is dead or wounded. She's always listening, always clinging to the edge of the normal and familiar.

On the other side of the world, Mike sees all the war's absurdities: men dying because of bad decisions, hard-won victories negated by politics. Yet he knows that it's his calling to lead men into battle, and he knows he's good at it. How can he put his true thoughts into words in a letter home? How can he sum up the horror of war and his own mixed feelings without distressing his wife? He chooses to shield her from the truth, writing breezy letters that downplay the danger he's in. To Liz, Mike's letters become tokens of his infidelity.

The tables turn, though, when Liz finds herself in a parallel battle that she can't share with Mike any more than he can share the war with her. Doctors tell her that the child she's carrying won't come to term. She decides to continue with the pregnancy anyway, but eventually gives birth to a daughter who only lives a little while. Without Mike there to support her, Liz depends on the comfort of a young priest, Father Germaine, another Vietnam vet with his own share of cruel memories. Germaine wants to love Liz but has to be content to do the work of God, giving last rites to Liz's child and taking her older children under his wing.

A photograph of his own dying daughter in a young priest's arms leaves Mike both anguished and jealous. It turns out that the hardest loss of all is the one he's not there to share. And when he finally comes home, he still has a long way to travel into his wife's heart. Sitting on a calm beach, Mike and Liz turn from their separate battles and face each other in battle posture, Mike protecting himself, Liz becoming the aggressor. She finds a new scar on his leg (one of many) and feels a flash of rage:

Her husband's damaged body shocked her still—this changed, scourged, compromised thing he had brought home to her, flesh of her flesh. She had a sense of ongoing violation and even, strangely, of jealousy, at his wounds, at the violent intimacies of them, in which she had played no part.

She thinks of Mike's refusal to talk about the war, she thinks of their dead daughter, and then she bares her anger (and fingernails) and gives him a wound of her own. "I want to hear the truth," she says while he examines his bloody leg in awe. "That's the point. I just want to hear the truth."

As in his previous book, The Monk Downstairs, Farrington weaves themes of faith and divine love into the texture of his novel. The O'Reillys are not only a military family but also a devoutly Catholic family, intent on fighting for what's good in the world, whether it's the preservation of a company of weary soldiers or the sanctity of a child's life. It's their almost innocent impulse toward goodness that makes their story so meaningful. And Lizzie's War is nothing if not "meaningful"—sometimes (I hate to say it) too much so, as Farrington dives headfirst into his narrative, letting us know exactly how and what to feel about his characters' embattled lives.

Still, it's good to believe that stories (and lives) mean something, even if the writer occasionally gives in to sentiment. A writer who has no patience for anything sentimental is Alix Ohlin, author of the debut novel The Missing Person. Ohlin writes about some sad things—a lost father, an estranged mother and son, an act of vandalism that ends in a tragic death—yet the style of The Missing Person is as dry as the Albuquerque landscape where it's set.

Lynn Fleming is a floundering graduate student in New York. She's trying to get on with her dissertation about feminist art and modernism but can't seem to find the right jumping-off point. Her life consists mostly of sitting around depressed in Brooklyn and occasionally sleeping with her married academic advisor, who's alternately sick of her and solicitous.

When Lynn's mother calls to ask for help with her brother Wylie, an environmentalist crusader who's recently gone off the deep end, Lynn heads home to Albuquerque. She's immediately sorry she did. Her mother annoys her; Wylie considers her the enemy; and she's bothered by memories of her dead father, the "missing person" whom she never really knew.

Two things happen that change Lynn's attitude toward Albuquerque. First, in her mother's house she discovers old paintings by a talented local artist and decides that this woman may be a hidden genius ripe for discovery—a catalyst for Lynn's long delayed doctoral work. It fascinates her that her own father purchased the paintings thirty years before. Had he known this woman? Could he have been her lover? If Lynn can find the artist, will she reveal some secret knowledge that explains (i.e., resurrects) Lynn's father?

While pursuing that mystery, Lynn begins an affair with one of Wylie's friends, a plumber named Angus, who inducts her into the strange world of eco-terrorism. Getting involved with a small band of radicals, she discovers a comradeship and feeling of community that's always eluded her. For a little while, it seems as if the different threads in Lynn's life will tie together (providing us with a satisfying plot), but this illusion of continuity fades when Lynn sees things for what they are: her radical friends as ineffectual and self-centered, her search for her father in a feminist artist's work as mostly wishful thinking. What she gains from her adventures is neither redemptive knowledge of the past nor meaning for the present; at best she gets a greater degree of self-knowledge, and maybe the beginnings of a better relationship with her mother and brother.

How does Ohlin want us to feel about all of this? Given her detached presentation, it's hard to know. She has a poetic style and a love of odd details that bring people to life. But in making her characters so palpable, she sometimes makes them repulsive (Angus always smells like ammonia, yet we're supposed to believe that Lynn feels madly attracted to him). In refusing to manipulate her story, Ohlin leaves the reader with too little. The most heroic character in the book, Wylie, stays too far from the center: we finish without ever really understanding what his beliefs mean to him. Like his sister, we feel disconnected from him and discover little to change that.

Which leads me to why, in a funny way, The Missing Person works. Set in a desert landscape, it mirrors the world's desertion of its heroine. Lynn lacks a father, a close family, a community, and for each of those losses receives something less than what she wants. If her story doesn't seem to mean much, that may be the way the author wants it. By leading us toward mysterious connections between people and events, only to abandon them, Ohlin seems to suggest that things are fundamentally unconnected—that although we long for a deep structure of meaning that links the living and the dead, the past and the present, in some enduring fashion, our hope is in vain, and perhaps we'd best begin to acknowledge the bleak truth and get on with our lives.

As an opponent of forced meaning in novels, I sympathize with Alix Ohlin. I like her dry style and her lack of sentiment. She seems less predictably optimistic, less manipulative with our emotions, and therefore more honest than many writers. On the other hand, isn't storytelling all about finding relationships between things? Isn't that why we write and read novels—to prove to ourselves and each other that the world means something?

It's not just sentiment, I think, that makes a novel like Lizzie's War ultimately more appealing: It's the author's hopeful vision. Farrington portrays life not as we experience it, but as it looks beyond our experience, in a place where events and people do tie together in mysterious and even sacred ways. That transcendent viewpoint trumps even style, though we can always hope (being foolishly optimistic, I guess) to find more novelists who will give us both.

Betty Smartt Carter is a novelist who lives in Alabama.

Most ReadMost Shared