Island Writer Magazine Review

The Best Soldier’s Wife, by Katrin Horowitz.

The epistolary novel has a long history in English writing, and Katrin Horowitz uses the format to advantage. As a series of letters addressed to the wife of the Chief of Defence Staff of Canada’s Armed Forces during our recent engagement in Afghanistan, the story explores the life of Amy Malcolm, wife and mother and individual as her husband completes a nine month tour of duty as a helicopter pilot. The struggle to hold together a family life with an abrasive teenage son, support a marriage with an increasingly traumatized veteran and nourish an evolving personal identity, are all aspects developed seamlessly through the protagonist’s letters to her created listener, the General’s wife. These letters provide framework for the story, a sense of immediacy to events and an intimacy to our relationship with characters. We know the Malcolms’ desperate struggle to reconnect when Ian is home on leave or the exasperation caused by Ethan’s simplistic egocentric interpretations of adult events. Horowitz has selected telling incidents which accumulate as character relationships are explored and expanded.

There is an authenticity to the details of this novel which can only come from personal experience, thorough research or both. Even the setting details which parallel the emotional course of the narrative are striking: significant but never a distraction from the story itself. The day-to-day activities of soldiers in Afghanistan and of a working mom in Victoria are selected and used in service to the larger story. The author crafts a narrative that draws us in and gives us the sense of a person revealing her life fully in a struggle to come to terms with the consequences of a distant war in her sheltered life so that even pettiness, fantasy and the banalities of daily routines can be incorporated without diminishing the pace or the thrust of theme.

If there are weaknesses, they are the weaknesses inherent in the strengths of the epistolary form. We cannot know all of the characters fully; they are either the products of the protagonist’s imagination or peripheral to the main storyline. If the cast is limited, that narrows the scope of actions and so contributes to a sense of isolation of the protagonist. If the chapters appear as separate vignettes it is because they must serve as discrete, significant events prompting each letter. There is always, a verisimilitude of character and a unity to story.

Entertainment and instruction are the two pillars of expression. The narrative elements in The Best Soldier’s Wife are assembled with a sureness that will guarantee the former; the facts which Horowitz incorporates are no less significant in serving the latter. The reader is left with some disturbing thoughts about the nature of Canada’s support for its military, specifically in regard to the psychological effects on service personnel and their families. Ian turns on his distraught wife when she urges counseling, “They give you a bunch of pills … $27,000, and then they kick you out.” The facts regarding a shift to lump-sum payments for deaths or disabilities, the impotence of the Military Family Resource Centre, and the chapter-ending lists of casualties chronicling those deaths are as powerful as any of the fictional components of this novel.

Derek Peach