Eleven Days by Lea Carpenter

Eleven Days

Five words from the blurb: mother, soldier, Afghanistan, courage, love

I received a review copy of this book last summer, but it didn’t make it to the top of my TBR pile as military stories aren’t normally my thing. Luckily I was persuaded to give it a try by David, one of my regular commenters. He hopes it will make the Baileys’ longlist on Friday and, having now read the book, I agree.

Eleven Days isn’t a typical war novel. It’s a subtle investigation into the mindset of a soldier, showing how the presence of danger affects both those on the battle field and their loved ones many miles away. The book begins in May 2011 with Sara discovering that her son Jason has gone missing during a Special Operations Forces mission in Afghanistan. Through a series of flashbacks the reader discovers Jason’s reasons for joining the Navy and what happened to his father, David. It also shows the mixed emotions of a mother desperate to hear the truth about where her son is.

The writing quality was superb – it captivated me and took me on an emotional roller-coaster, without ever becoming sentimental. Tension was built in a subtle way, but this never felt like the main objective of the book. Instead it questioned the way society thinks about its armed forces; showing a spectrum of opinion through clever use of characters caught in their own uncertain turmoil.

Most people might concede the merits of World War I or Korea but be unable to identify the details. And most people, in the abstract, prefer butter to guns, but most mostly prefer not to think about it all. Has it always been that way? Does a public’s opinion rise and fall like a stock on the occasion of new information and new numbers – of dead, of days fighting, of the change in the price of gas? More likely it fluctuates with something more banal and abstract: the length of their attention span.

I loved the way this book avoided graphic images of war and violence. Instead it focused on military training, showing how soldiers adapt to harsh environments before heading out to a war zone. The detailed descriptions of US Navy SEAL training were fascinating to read and it was interesting to learn that mental training is given the same priority as physical fitness.

It also perfectly captured the relationship between a mother and her grownup son, showing the difficulty of letting him learn from his mistakes and the grief of no longer being the person in control of his life.

I’ve read lots of war stories, but Lea Carpenter somehow managed to capture a fresh angle on the subject. I made a mistake in leaving it out of my Baileys’ Fiction Prize longlist prediction last week. It deserves to be on the list and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the judges recognise its brilliance.


7 replies on “Eleven Days by Lea Carpenter”

Susan, I know exactly how you feel – war books are so common that I put off trying new ones too. It is a shame as it means I might miss a few that are as wonderful as this, but luckily I gave ‘Eleven Days’ a chance. Hope you decide to too 🙂

I’m so glad you responded as positively to this one as I did, Jackie. Like you, I found the writing to be superb. It is something of a reviewing cliché to say a first novel doesn’t read like a debut, but ‘Eleven Days’ really does read like the work of an already significant author with three or four novels under her belt – it has that kind of assurance and confidence.

It definitely does offer a different spin on the Iraq/Afghanistan war novel – it’s much more emotional and affecting than, say, ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ or ‘Fobbit’, but she neatly balances that with a kind of scholarliness and with mythological allusion. But it never gets heavy – crikey, it even got me listening to Eminem!

David, Thank you so much for persuading me to read this one – now we can rave about it together! I agree that it feel like it has been written by a significant writer. It is probably the best writing I’ve come across this year, way ahead anything else eligible for the Baileys prize.

I feel bad only awarding it 4 stars as it really is the best (from a scholarly point of view) book I’ve read recently (and so if I was on a judging panel I’d be pushing it to win), but I’m afraid it is still a book about war and so won’t end up as one of my favourites of the year. I just have to hope that next time Lea Carpenter writes about a subject that interests me. Combine that with her amazing writing and she could easily produce an all-time favourite.

I have found that some of the most impactful books about war don’t talk about the actual graphic details of war. I can’t remember if you have read “You Know When the Men Are Gone” but what an amazing collection of short stories about the collateral damage of war. No matter, my singular thought in reading all of these types of stories is my perspective as a mom of a son. It is almost paralyzing.

I love your idea of giving ‘five words from the blurb’! Military stories aren’t my thing either, so I like the fact that this isn’t a typical war novel – there are far too many of those graphic, gory ones. Thanks for this review, this book sounds like exactly my kind of read – adding it to my TBR list!

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