Whitney Terrell delivers one of the most original war novels in recent years and the most moving war novel I’ve read since Kevin Power’s The Yellow Birds.
In many ways this novel is a classic war story. A platoon that comes together during training, forges a bond, only for it to all fall apart under the pressures of war and combat. However it is the way in which Whitney Terrell tells this story that changes your perceptions and reinvents this war story by flipping everything on its head.
Firstly the good lieutenant of the title is a woman, making it the first war novel I know of with a female protagonist. Terrell doesn’t play the female lead as a novelty, instead he uses Lieutenant Emma Fowler to flesh out different aspects of war, combat, the military and being a leader in the most extreme, as well as the most banal, of situations. Terrell uses Fowler to explore what it means to be a good leader; the pressures, the expectations, the politics, and how no matter how good your intentions a good result is often unobtainable or just a matter of perception.
Secondly Terrell tells the entire story backwards. Rather than building the bonds of a platoon and then ripping those bonds apart Terrell begins with the bonds in tatters and goes backwards to show how those bonds were built and where the strengths, and weaknesses, in those bonds were forged and reinforced.
The novel opens with an operation going wrong, badly wrong. Lieutenant Fowler is leading a mission to recover the body of a member of her platoon who went missing on a previous operation days before. An Iraqi civilian has been killed and her platoon subsequently ripped to pieces in an ambush. Terrell then jumps back to show what happened to Fowler’s missing platoon member and then back again to detail the events that lead up to him going missing. The story continues going backwards showing all the elements, relationships, choices and uncertainties that lead, in one way or another, to the catastrophe at the opening of the novel. By the end of the novel the tragedy of its beginning is even more apparent than if the story was told in the traditional chronology. What has been lost more painful and how it has been lost more devastating.
This is another outstanding piece of fiction to join the canon of outstanding writing that has emerged from the tragedies of war over the last 15 years.