Book review: Spoils by Brian Van Reet

Author Brian Van Reet.
Peter Tsai

Author Brian Van Reet.

Spoils by Brian Van Reet, Jonathan Cape, $37

If the American occupation of Iraq has produced one good – IF – it is the quality of fiction the war has generated. Works like The Yellow Birds, Billy Lynn's Long Half Time Walk and Redeployment all chronicle the terrifying, dehumanising waste of people and assets, on both sides.

Spoils adds to that august list. Like many of them, it is also written by an ex-combatant. Unlike all of the above, however, it tries to balance both sides of this technological and cultural maelstrom. Taking their lead from a unifocal Hollywood, recent novels could be justly accused of monocular vision. Enemy combatants are usually nameless and faceless black shadows.

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Here, the enemy has both identity and history. Abu al-Hool is a product of Cairo's upper middle class. He has fought in Afghanistan and Chechyna, where he lost a son. Now, he fights with a mujahideen platoon in Fallujah, or the "Triangletown" of the novel. Dismayed at the ideological rigidity of his commander, Doctor Walid, and disillusioned by his band of petty thieves and prisoners, he plans his escape.

His nemesis is American specialist, Cassandra Wigheard. She joined to "defy the small domestic compassions of kith and home". She also has a secret to keep.

On her first mission to Iraq, she and two comrades are taken captive after an abortive roadblock. Her thoughts are also of escape, but first she must survive her capture in the heat and filth of an Iraqi ruin. Her survival is predicated on the friendship of her captors, in particular a new recruit, young Hafs. It is an inverted Stockholm Syndrome, where the captors fall enamoured of the hostage.

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The third triangulation is from Private Sleed, an impetuous, opportunistic tanker driver. It is his patrol which fails to protect Wigheard's unit from attack, and then has to rescue her.

Van Reet's attempt at triangulation is brave, but ultimately flawed. To be effective, all parts need to be credible, in detail as well as in general. Van Reet's is not. Abu al-Hool is an educated and well-travelled man. He has visited London, where he particularly recalls a sense of divinity on seeing Westminster Abbey. Is it really likely a 12-year-old boy would be struck by, and remember the clerical jargon of "fan-vaulted roof ... misericords ... foliated corbels". He displays no other aesthetic or architectural interest.

Likewise, the Sleed strand imbalances the delicate counterpointing of Abu al-Hool and Wigheard. Sleed creates no interest as a character, nor serves a real narrative purpose.

On the other hand, Van Reet's grasp of the terminology of modern technological warfare is profound. He recreates wonderfully the visceral impact of the attack. Clearly, this is written from experience.

As a debut, this is a deeply impressive work. Flawed, yes, but full of great promise.

 - Stuff

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