Reviewed by Gill Davies
In the past,I have hesitated to read a novel that uses dreadful contemporary events as its plot and thematic focus, in case it feels exploitative or voyeuristic. Judging by their covers, there is a macho authorship and readership that enjoys fiction about ‘combat’ and the military. But this novel was an exception. I came across a brief recommendation for The Girl in Green and was intrigued. Derek B. Miller’s first novel, Norwegian By Night, which I’ve yet to read, was highly praised and this is clearly a very impressive follow-up. Miller is an expert on international affairs and has worked in public policy and for the United Nations. His knowledge and experience underpin this novel.
The genre to which it belongs is best described as the literary thriller. John le Carre is the master of the form and he is able to really nail the villains – including global corporations, state secrecy, corrupt politicians and spies (and Americans, of course). Miller also has no time for the generals and the politicians who fight wars at the expense of the vulnerable and the powerless. He exposes the senseless destruction and shows the really heroic work done by people trying to help the wounded, refugees and the victims of war. In between these two groups are the main protagonists of the novel, each of whom is in some way compromised by his profession: an American soldier guarding the cease-fire line in the first Gulf War and a British journalist who has been ‘embedded’ with the American troops. The plot begins with an incident in that war in 1991 which has consequences more than twenty years later back in Iraq.
Arwood Hobbes is a young and rather impulsive American soldier. He resents his passive role as the cease-fire between Iraq and the USA and its allies degenerates into Saddam’s war on his own people. As death squads attack a small town, he can only observe. Thomas Benton has been frustrated by the restrictions on the press and he decides to cross to the town to try to get a better story. He seeks help from Hobbes so that he can get the views of the rebels and finds himself briefly captured and challenged. But the villagers ask him questions: ‘What is our future?… You have an army. Big army. You drive Saddam out of Kuwait. OK. Now what? You take Saddam away?’’ He discovers that Bush’s war to save Kuwait has only set off a chain of destruction and civil war. And we see that it continues to this day. The immediate consequence of Benton’s actions is the death of the young girl in the title – a death which comes to haunt both men while also symbolising the connections between past and present.
In 2013, Benton is in Kurdistan at a refugee camp for Syrians, Iraqis and Kurds, the victims of the latest manifestation of the war started 22 years before. He has been contacted by Arwood saying that the girl in the green dress has re-appeared in news footage from the area and that they should investigate it. This unlikely occurrence is nevertheless compelling for both men, especially Arwood who was thrown out of the army and is now something of a mystery man. Benton too is at a moment of crisis in his personal life. The men find themselves back on the border of a deadly country with confused motives and the need for redemption. I don’t want to say any more about the plot which is at times far-fetched (in the manner of all political thrillers, perhaps) but which is always gripping and is ultimately resolved in a consistent and satisfying way.
The focus on the nightmare of western ‘intervention’ in the Middle East is both topical and perceptively shown. The three main characters (the ex-soldier, the weary journalist, the aid worker) exemplify people’s resilience and perhaps ultimate goodness. The novel does try to find hope and meaning in the horrifying events they experience. Miller’s style is sharp, occasionally funny, with characters individuated by their idioms and experiences. The writing is vivid with real feeling for the plight of refugees and other victims of war. There are moments of chilling horror, as when a Syrian refugee recounts how his pregnant wife was shot by Assad’s snipers for target practice. ‘Assad wanted to teach us that we were powerless.’ And he excoriates the injustice and stupidity of western intervention. Take this example, describing the differences between the living quarters of the military and the aid workers:
The military lived behind walls. They dug in like Romans…. [T]he military served home cooking that agreed with their soldiers’ tastes and tummies, played hard rock and hip hop, and built a colony as hermetically sealed and dissociated as a Marriott hotel on Mars. The command renamed every local road destination… so it was memorable and pronounceable to kids with high school educations. In making life easy, because war is hard, they created a universe so artificial that you could be stationed in Iraq for years and never learn a thing.
The humanitarian staff lived in tents on the ground among the people. Listening to the same sounds they heard the same conversations. There were no walls, no guards, no weapons. They were safe, not because they had defences, but because they’d been invited.
The Girl in Green is an exciting and topical thriller, but it’s also a thought-provoking, compassionate and highly relevant story from inside the world we see and read about in the news.
Derek B. Miller, The Girl in Green (Faber & Faber: London, 2016). 978-0571313952, 372pp., hardback.
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