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Woman at war
by Akshita Nanda

A soldier discharged from the army finds it impossible to settle into civilian life. So far, so typical for stories about combat veterans and post-traumatic stress disorder, from Pat Barker's novel of British soldiers after World War I, Life Class (2007), to David Morrell's post- Vietnam War thriller First Blood (1972), which inspired the Rambo movies.

The first startling difference in American writer Cara Hoffman's novel is that the discharged soldier and potential powder-keg is a woman in her early 20s, whose potential for violence may be misjudged easily.

Second, protagonist Lauren Clay was already damaged by life before she fought in Iraq. When she enlisted, it was for money to pay the mortgage and feed her younger brother Danny. It was the last in a series of difficult decisions she made for almost half her life to protect him, as her mother left home and her father sank into depression.

Just as her brother's letters to her while she was in Iraq always ended with a plea to "be safe, I love you", Lauren's mission in life has been to keep him secure as well. But her small-town reunion with friends and family begins to take on a dangerous edge as her conflict-worn imagination conflates present reality with past hazards.

In Barker's Life Class, art students have to set aside their talent for the killing fields of World War I. Lauren in Be Safe I Love You is a gifted singer who had a full scholarship to a noted music school, but gave it up to go to war to provide for her family.

Seeing creative potential turn to destructive anger is part of the reason why Be Safe I Love You is not an easy read, but it is a powerful one.

Hoffman is a little too fond of her own style and over-writes unnecessarily at times. Interludes featuring an army doctor keen to put Lauren under psychiatric treatment hold the plot back, rather than create suspense. Sentences are sometimes clipped. Unnecessarily.

Still, the overall tale is haunting and full of satisfyingly grim inversions of gender stereotypes.

Lauren is dangerous, but even the reader might not understand how dangerous she truly is, even as she nearly breaks her boyfriend's nose during one early altercation.

After all, her home environment seems well-suited to her problems. Her town is next to a military outpost and houses several survivors of the Vietnam War. Counselling services are literally at her doorstep, in the persons of her father and his best friend.

Yet she ignores all helping hands, including from her former boyfriend Shane and the army psychiatrist.

She ignores any push towards the musical training and college education she deliberately set aside to shoulder her family's financial needs.

The horrible truth is that war breaks something that years of therapy and normalcy may not fix, as seen in Shane's shiftless uncles, who never recovered from the Vietnam War.

And these fictional characters with their helplessness and ability to destroy are representative of countless men and fewer women returning from battlefields every day.

Hoffman plays here a trick similar to that in her first novel, So Much Pretty (2011), in which the murder of a teenager also shone a spotlight on countless unremarked and unaddressed cases of domestic violence and abuse in a town.

Lauren's case is just one among so many others. The soldiers may be coming home, but the war goes on inside them. One can only wish for fewer battles and more peace talks in the world.

If you like this, read: The Lonely Soldier: The Private War Of Women Serving In Iraq by Helen Benedict (2010, Beacon Press, $18.40, This non-fiction book collects real-life stories of female soldiers and the dangers they face in combat and among their comrades.

This article was first published on June 1, 2014.
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