Monday, October 20, 2014

My Life As A Foreign Country -- A New Kind of War Story

You Need To Read This Book, Really

I finished this memoir, My Life As A Foreign Country, by Brian Turner,  a few weeks ago and yet it is not finished with me. Not at all. I can't shake the feeling that Turner isn't sure how much to reveal --- or perhaps more to the point --- that to "reveal" is not his point. The lyric structure, the breaking and un-breaking of time, the ghosts that walk through this book; these are the elements that make me reach for this work --- this hard work --- and read it again.

What I want from prose is similar to what I want from poetry: to leap into the unknown. Elizabeth Bishop stated that what she liked in poetry was "to see the mind in motion." Of course the literal mind is a messy thing filled with desires for honey crisp apples and a nap --- but what Turner gives us is a new way into the mind of one soldier -- an Iraq war veteran.

However, it is in the last third of the book, after Turner returns home where things really get interesting.

"Countries are touching countries and I cross over from one to another, trying to shake the past and find a world I can live in" (162).

The return to "home" or in Turner's case, the return that actually becomes a completely different world from the life he had known before the war is, for this reader, the most interesting aspect of the book. In the final chapters Turner employs the surreal mixing the true strangeness of war's aftermath with the book's documentary style.

"Journalists shuffle into our bedroom and wait patiently for us to finish making love. They want me to talk about suicide. They want me to talk about hand-to-hand combat--- something I really know nothing about. They want a modern definition for the word obscenity and the word slaughter "(171).

In my time teaching college English and Film Studies I've had many Iraq veterans come through my classes. Perhaps this book will help me understand a little more of their struggles. Perhaps not.

There is no blueprint for dealing with trauma. Turner tells us this without telling us. Instead, weeks after I finished reading this book I am still thinking of all the ghosts he walks beside. The ghosts that as readers we also begin to see in the supermarkets as we fill our carts, in line at the bank, and at the edge of our fingertips as we work to make sense of war.


  1. I, too, want to re-read this book, which I think is extraordinary. It's one of the most original and creative and haunting approaches to memoir I've ever read. Turner has indicated that he deliberately focused on the masculine point of view and may revisit his experiences with a female perspective, what he calls "the other side of the house."

    An audio version is available, which must be amazing to hear.

    There's a very good interview with him at Brevity.

  2. Wow, this sounds good, particularly after getting to know his poems. I'm adding it to my book list now. Thanks Susan.

  3. I really want to read this book - it sounds like a haunting, thought-provoking yet lyrical work. OK, maybe lyrical isn't the right word, but it's a language that seems taut, poetic, very fit for purpose.