Book review: ‘You Know When The Men Are Gone’ by Siobhan Fallon

In this collection of short stories, Siobhan Fallon — herself a military wife — provides poignant vignettes of life as both a service member on the frontlines of the war in Iraq and the families waiting for their safe return.

At Fort Hood, Texas, women of different ages and backgrounds are sewn together with a common thread: they are all married to Army men either presently deployed or just home from Iraq. By turns life-affirming, poignant and heartbreaking, You Know When The Men Are Gone is a series of stories that had me tentatively turning each page, a little afraid of what I would find written there.

Military life isn’t foreign to me. Both my grandfathers served in Korea and Vietnam, and my ex-boyfriend was deployed to Iraq early on in the war. Many of the details here felt familiar to me. My grandmother has often shared letters between her father — my great-grandfather — and his wife back home in Pennsylvania. He was stationed in the Pacific during World War II and often wrote long, eloquent letters to the family eagerly waiting for news of his safety. When you went off to war, you went off to war. My grandmother was just a child — a girl unsure of where her father was, or why.

Technology has changed enough to allow more frequent communication from abroad. Fallon’s characters communicate with their loved ones through email and Skype, Facebook and traditional mail, but the women at home are often left to interpret the veiled communication from their husbands half a world away. When one waits too long for word from Iraq, she logs into his email account to see if he’s safe. Searching for signs that he’s logged on recently, the wife discovers provocative emails between he and a female service member. Without any way of verifying if he’s actually having an affair, she’s left to stew in her own juices.

Here’s the thing about You Know When The Men Are Gone: it doesn’t sugar-coat anything. These stories are not cheery. Military wives’ lives can be fraught with uncertainty, waiting, disappointment, waiting, anxiety, waiting and . . . waiting. Fallon neither raises these women onto pedestals or belittles their experiences; she does an admirable job of showing both the positives and negatives of loving a man who is serving his country. Through her vignettes, constantly shifting narrators and settings, Fallon also demonstrates what a microcosm a military base can be. Fort Hood has everything a military family could need, she writes; why go anywhere else?

But there’s a world out there. A big world. And some of the women are tired of waiting — and all too eager to get away.

If you’re not one to gravitate to short stories, I would still give You Know When The Men Are Gone a chance. These characters are in impossible positions in unforgiving circumstances, and not every story is easy to read. I didn’t finish the book with a bubble of happiness in my chest, that’s for sure, but I’m still glad I spent time getting to know Fallon’s characters.

If nothing else, it’s a welcome reminder to thank our veterans and appreciate the sacrifices Americans make every day for our country — and not just the enlisted ones.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0399157204 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

9 thoughts on “Book review: ‘You Know When The Men Are Gone’ by Siobhan Fallon

  1. We live close to Ft. Meade, so many of my daughter’s friends’ mothers and some of my husband’s former co-workers were military wives. I can’t even imagine being in their shoes, and we saw how hard it was for them to care for their families on their own. I’ve been curious about this book for awhile. It sounds really good, even if depressing.


  2. I liked this one more than you did – it will go on my best of 2011 list. My dad was in the military when I was young and I really appreciated the fact that Fallon showed that the whole family serves when a parent is in the military.


  3. I loved this book (on audio, narrated by the amazing Cassandra Campbell). Although it was a 5 star for me, it was not one of my top 10. I thought it was realistic and beautifully written. And I have not one link to the military.


  4. I taught on a military base for 6 years and worked with left behind mothers and children on a daily basis. Marriages crumbled every day while others survived. One of the things that seemed imperative to me of their survival was support groups. The wives of the successful families seemed to band tightly together…the husbands too. So it was almost as if when one husband was gone, all of their husbands were gone…like an extended family all living together (even though they had separate houses). I’m not a short story fan, but I’ve added this one to my WishList.


  5. Despite the fact that this wasn’t a favorite for you, I think I am definitely going to have to read this one. My husband is joining the army this year *gulp* and while he is going in as a dentist, meaning he is less likely to be deployed and in less dangerous situations, it is definitely going to be a hard and rewarding thing. I’m interested in getting some insight. Thanks for your review!


  6. This made my best of list for 2011 largely because it opened my eyes to the tremendous sacrifice made by military families – I think I always understood how much those in the service risked and gave up but I underestimated how much their families are impacted. I liked how she linked the stories together with some common characters.


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