by Hilary Plum
Publisher: Fence Books
Winner of the Fence Modern Prize in Prose
reviewed by Bronwyn Mauldin
Strawberry Fields is a book of names. Half the chapters are titled “Alice,” the name of the novel’s protagonist. Each of the remaining chapters is titled for its narrator, 17 of them named, three identified only by nicknames. Alice and Modigliani are trying to solve the simultaneous murders in a hospital ward of Iraq war veterans. Names are important, as Alice explains:
“I had profiles of the victims, tons of background. In my notes I used their first names, hoping to call them up, make them feel known: Kareem, Frances, Jonathan, Sergei, Diana.”
Through the course of the novel we have fleeting encounters with 36 more named characters, a few others identified only by an initial or characteristic, a handful of dogs named after their behaviors, one very, very bad man.
That man is Bill LeRoy, CEO of Xenith, a transnational corporation making millions selling war, mercenaries, and security services. Any resemblance to Erik Prince and Blackwater USA (now known by the more anodyne “Academi”) is intentional. One great conceit of this novel is that much of it is true. Dialogue is taken directly from former prisoners at Guantánamo and from Donald Rumsfeld. Protesters occupy a city park for weeks. Reporters try and fail to discover why innocent people were shot during Hurricane Katrina.
I started reading this novel just as massive wildfires were exploding across California. To be reminded of the Bush administration’s startlingly inadequate response to one of the worst natural disasters to hit the US even as the current president was tweeting out threats to cut federal funding to fight wildfires, was to be reminded the crisis of democracy we are living through today did not happen overnight. So many scenes in this book center around a war Americans are trying to forget. It may be tempting to look back at the Bush years and think, at least they had an ideology, in comparison to nihilistic drive to amass wealth and power driving the current administration and its camp followers. To read this book is to find yourself back in that time, but with the benefit of hindsight. Plum, by treating the Katrina murders and killings committed by mercenaries in a time of war equally as crimes, helps us see the ideology of that administration was nothing more than a wrapping of red, white, and blue tissue paper.
Those aren’t the only crimes and injustices Plum’s characters explore. Reading this novel is a bit like reading the newspaper. Its disconnected narratives leave you with the sense that no matter how much you’ve read when you finally put it down, tomorrow’s newspaper will offer more injustices to read. That is, of course, the point. We are surrounded by disconnected injustices, and we get only a cursory view of them through the news. Behind the stories we read are people, famous and otherwise, whose lives we will never know, even if we know their names.
In a chapter titled “La Gringa,” the American narrator arrives in the village where her grandmother had been born, somewhere in what is probably the Balkans:
“The village was much as one would expect, though the background of mountains and sky more spectacular than I would have imagined. The children’s clothes were not traditional but dirtied American castoffs – Mickey Mouse, Adidas, mesh shorts.”
While this novel gives us the victims’ names and reminds us to think of them as human, it treats them only as victims. We see the damage wrought by American foreign policy, but that is all we see. At the end of the novel we know Alice and we have a better picture of the five murder victims, but as when we read the newspaper, we know little about the other people we’ve passed along the way. Today, I find myself equally interested in seeing the world through the eyes of those who’ve lived through war and authoritarianism. I want to know how they find agency, continuing to go to school, fall in love, get married, go to work each day. How do they find the strength to live lives that are full and meaningful, even in terrible times? I am certain they have something to teach us.
Bronwyn Mauldin writes fiction and poetry and is creator of The Democracy Series zine collection. Her newest work appears in Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California.