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Book Review – You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon

You Know When the Men Are Gone
by Siobhan Fallon [website]
240 pages
Published January 20, 2011
Short stories

I was excited to read You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon because I love short stories. One of my favorite short stories, “A Clean Well Lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway, was so moving that I’ve never forgotten it and I think about it quite often, even though I read it more than 15 years ago. Siobhan Fallon’s book was published by Amy Einhorn Books, an imprint for which I have immense respect.

I started reading You Know When the Men Are Gone in late December. Not having much reading time means that short stories are perfect for my schedule right now. Unfortunately, though, I put the book down after four stories because I just didn’t find them compelling. They were good, yes, and the writing was good, and I was certainly finding passages to mark, but I wasn’t getting that POW! that I think you should get from a short story. An author has 20-30 pages to tell a story, when in a normal novel you get 250-400 pages, so the prose has to be tight and the story succinct. I prefer my short stories to pack a punch. If you’ve read “A Clean Well Lighted Place”, have you forgotten the ending? I know I can’t. I’m not saying that Fallon should wrap up her stories in nice, tidy packages. On the contrary, I love ambiguity and open endings. But stories can still pack a punch without a tidy ending.

When I put You Know When the Men Are Gone aside, I wasn’t sure I’d pick it up again. But then the book was published, Siobhan Fallon was being compared to Jhumpa Lahiri, and my local bookstore picked it for their January First Editions Book Club. I also heard from a friend who’d read You Know When the Men Are Gone that the book does get better, so it was with renewed hope that I again picked up the book.

For purposes of this review, I will discuss the first and last story, as well as a story in between.

The first story, “You Know When the Men Are Gone”, had me very excited to read this book. Meg, waiting for her husband to come back from deployment, becomes obsessed with her neighbor, Natalya. She starts spying on her, staying up late to listen to the sounds that Natalya and a mysterious visitor make. I was really excited to see where this would go. Where would Meg’s obsession take her? Would Natalya find out she’s being spied on? Would this become a problem in Meg’s marriage? By the end, I was disappointed to see the story fizzle out, and Meg’s obsession fizzled as well.

The last story, “Gold Star”, helped to redeem this book for me, though not enough for me to want to keep it in a permanent collection. Kit, a character in a previous story, goes to see the widow of the man who saved him from an IED. You see things unfold through the widow’s eyes, Josie. A story dealing with a young widow who wouldn’t have kids with her husband until he left the military, and who was killed one month before he was due to be discharged, should be raw and intense and really make me feel something. And I did. Sometimes. But Fallon could have spent more time showing the reader what Josie was doing to keep her husband near her in death. I saw one or two things she would do, such as putting pictures of him all over their house, but I wanted more. How is this affecting Josie? How is she not coping? I wanted more of that. Admittedly, I loved the ending and wish each story packed more of an emotional jolt like “Gold Star”.

I want to be clear that I thought the stories in You Know When the Men Are Gone were thisclose to greatness. Fallon touched on some universal thoughts and feelings that I wish she’d spent more time fleshing out. For example, in “The Last Stand”, Kit comes home after suffering an injury due to an IED, and he’s not sure Helena, his wife, will be waiting for him when he gets off the bus. Helena hasn’t talked to him much on the phone lately, and when she would call the hospital he was at, she would leave messages instead of asking to speak to him. He knows there’s a rift, but how to fix it or even why it happened is beyond him. So as he’s looking through the crowd of wives and girlfriends, we read, “…he kept his eyes on her hair and wouldn’t look around, afraid another soldier would see how relieved he was to find someone waiting for him.” Does your heart just not break for him in that moment? But as Kit tries to understand what’s going on between him and Helena, the reader isn’t treated to any more of Kit’s deep, dark secrets about the possibility of Helena leaving him, so when she does leave him, I was left feeling sorry for Kit, but that was it. I was sad for him, but ultimately I could forget him because I wasn’t invested in him.

As I write this review, I’m thinking about what makes stories, any story, memorable. It could be the crazy antics, the unique situation, etc. But what makes things most memorable? I would argue that it’s the emotions we relate to in a story that make a story memorable. Right? A trauma in someone’s life is so much more real when you experience it with them. Let’s pretend your friend’s mom died. Unfortunately, that’s not that unique of a situation. But what makes it memorable is that you spent hours talking about it with your friend, you saw your friend’s mom in the bed that hospice brought over, and you knew from what your friend said that your friend would be lost without her mom, that life would never be the same. See how a story can change when you have an emotional connection? That’s what I, as a reader, didn’t feel like I got in You Know When the Men Are Gone.

Many of the stories in You Know When the Men Are Gone start out with a lot of promise, but they end up petering out at the end. I don’t want a short story to end. I want it to END. The best thing about “A Clean Well Lighted Place” is not only the loneliness and despair that Hemingway evokes in so few pages, but the fact that at the end, you realize that the old waiter, while talking about the old man staying well past closing, is also talking about himself when he talks about wanting a clean, well lighted place to be at night. My heart broke when I read the last page of this short story as the despair and loneliness was that much more palpable as I realized who the story was really about.

One of the things that frustrates me in a situation like this is that a book of short stories comes out and all of a sudden the writer is compared to the best of the best in that genre. In this case, Jhumpa Lahiri. Jenn talked about this very thing recently. Is it because there’s so few authors of fabulous short stories? Is it because it’s human nature to compare this to that? It’s partly due to the comparison of Fallon to Lahiri that my heart is heavy in writing this review. Because when I see a good author compared to a great author, I have to explain, even more so, why the good author isn’t great. That’s exactly the situation in this case. I thought You Know When the Men Are Gone was good, and Fallon may one day even be great, but we’re not quite there yet.

| Tags: , , 31 comments »

31 Responses to “Book Review – You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon”

  1. Becca ()

    Jhumpa Lahiri is indeed a great short story writer – the Alice Munro of her generation, I would say. I’m not one to read a lot of short stories, but I am completely captivated by the stories both these women write. They are so complete – like small novels, the characters and situations so compelling and well resolved.

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  2. Pam van Hylckama Vlieg ()

    I am reading it one story at a time as well.

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  3. Marie ()

    Trish — This is a great review! This title caught my eye, but your review makes me glad I didn’t buy it. (I already live with Mount TBR & try to be choosy!) I haven’t been a huge short story fan, tending to prefer novels most of the time, but I do love Jhumpa Lahiri. I listened to the audio of Unaccustomed Earth just a couple of months ago, and at the end I thought, “When is her next book coming out?!?!?” And my next thought was, a few more books like this, —>> Nobel Prize in Literature. I’ve also read one story collection by Lydia Davis called Break It Down — totally different style, really experimental, but I liked that a lot too. 🙂 Thanks again!

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  4. zibilee ()

    I am very appreciative to have read this review, as this was a book I was seriously considering buying very soon, and now I think I might hold off. I agree with your feelings on short stories. They need to have depth and closure for me, in all areas, or I just get bored and feel like I’ve wasted my time. It’s so hard for me to get excited about short stories at times, because most of them just leave me feeling tepid. I think your analysis of what didn’t work in this collection was quite perceptive, and I could really feel the frustration that this inspired in you. Although the book didn’t quite work for you, your review was really quite thought provoking and insightful.

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  5. Heidi

    Thanks for the review. This book is on my TBR list even though I am not a big fan of short stories. Nice review. Very thorough.

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  6. Anna

    Just to clarify, I think you mean IED, not IUD… I think a story about an IUD injury would be very different indeed!

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    trish Reply:

    HA! Obviously I’ve got baby on the brain, not war. 🙂

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  7. bermudaonion (Kathy) ()

    I enjoyed this one more than you did. I could relate to some of the stories since I remember my dad’s last deployment and could remember how I felt while he was gone and when he came home.

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    trish Reply:

    I think the stories are very relatable, whether or not you’ve had family members in the military. But that doesn’t change the fact that I thought the stories came up lacking.

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  8. Lisa Munley ()

    I also caught the IUD reference and had a good laugh! Great review. I really love short stories but the best ones are the ones that pack a whallop (sp?) Maybe I should say ‘punch’ since I know how to spell that. I haven’t read the Hemingway story you refer to but it occurred to me that you were doing the very thing that frustrates you by using it for comparison LOL! It’s human nature to compare.

    “One of the things that frustrates me in a situation like this is that a book of short stories comes out and all of a sudden the writer is compared to the best of the best in that genre. “

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    trish Reply:

    I guess I wasn’t clear on what I meant. I don’t like when an author, particularly a debut author, is compared FAVORABLY to the best authors in that genre. It sets the author up to fail for many readers, such as myself. If I’m expecting to be as impressed with Fallon as I was with Lahiri because everyone’s saying she’s as good as Lahiri, then when I read Fallon’s book and feel like the comparison might be premature, I’m understandably disappointed!

    What I was doing by mentioning Hemingway’s short story was showing how one short story had affected me, whereas Fallon’s stories didn’t have this same affect. Maybe we see this differently, but what I was referring to (specfically, what Jenn talked about in her post), and the manner in which I mentioned Hemingway are completely different.

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    Lisa Munley Reply:

    Ah, ok, that does clear it up for me! I didn’t read Jenn’s post before commenting (still haven’t, actually). I think a lot of times it’s a marketing thing, a way of explaining to a potential reader what they might expect, but it backfires when expectations become too high. “This new book/movie is a cross between that and that. This debut author is a young fill-in-the-blank famous novelist.”

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  9. Melissa Sarno ()

    This book was on my ‘To Read’ list but I couldn’t find it at the bookstore, then I forgot about it. I think short stories are hard to write and read. Jhumpa Lahiri is one of my favorite authors of all time but, to be honest, I don’t remember any one of her stories in the Interpreter of Maladies or Unaccustomed Earth in any detail. But I have a much more vivid memories and feelings about her novel The Namesake. Olive Kitteridge is one of the only book of short stories I have read where I remember characters and moments and emotions to this day.

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  10. Laura @ I'm Booking It ()

    Hmm, it sounds like your problems with this collection were similar to the issues I had with Mistress of Nothing. The situation led me to feel I should care, but I never really felt the character’s pain…

    I’m still not sure if I’ll read this one– I find that short stories are tricky for me even at best.

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  11. NovelWhore ()

    I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the book more, but this is still a great review. I think my feelings were the opposite of yours – I’ve never read Lahiri and have never really liked short stories, so had no expectations of YKWTMAG. When I did read it and find myself captivated and transported by these brief stories I was astonished at the power that was relayed in so few pages, since it usually takes me more time to get involved in a novel. What did you think about the story when the soldier returns home in the basement and it ends on a cliffhanger? I still think about that family and I read this months ago (though plan to reread for my April book club).

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    trish Reply:

    I liked the story about the soldier who returns home and stakes out his wife in his basement. I thought that story had a lot of promise, but it just lacked something for me. I don’t know why!

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  12. Kathleen

    Really appreciate the honest, forthcoming review! I’ve been wanting to read more short stories so will plan to read this in the future. I like knowing that it is okay if I don’t feel “wowed” by them. I also need to find that emotional connection to what I am reading so this one would probably hit me the same way it has you.

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  13. jenn aka the picky girl ()

    I had heard a lot about this collection and was interested because I write short stories and love the format. To me, it’s such a challenge.

    If you haven’t read John Cheever or Raymond Carver, please please go pick up their collected works or Carver’s Cathedral. Andre Dubus is excellent as well. I took a modern short story class once upon a time, and these and Flannery O’Connor were my favorites. (See how I keep throwing more authors in there?)

    “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is a favorite of mine as well. I teach it in my writing and lit class and though students are always thrown by it, they are fascinated too. Such resonance for such an incredibly short piece.

    I may still give this one a go, but you’re right about the difference between good and great. It’s an art form, and I want the best.

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    trish Reply:

    Ah, more authors to add to my list! They were on my radar before, but I’ll definitely seek out their work now. Thanks, Jenn!

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  14. David Fickbohm

    I am a veteran of the vietnam war. I can relate to the stories in this book. A short story does not have to end. It can leave you hanging wondering what happened next. That is NOT wrong. Many short story authors use this technique and it is taught in many respected universities.

    If I were to review this book I would get a very high rating and I would suggest that everyone read it. Read it so you can understand what the guys deployed and their families are going through.

    Boo Raa!

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    trish Reply:

    Thanks for your comment, David! I think I wasn’t clear when I said I want a short story to END. I don’t mind if it ends in a cliffhanger! In fact, I don’t need all the facts to be really affected by a story. But there was something about these stories that when they ended, they just…ended. Most of them were kind of ho hum for me. I’m glad they worked for you, though! That’s the beauty of books and reading, yes? 🙂

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  15. Vasilly ()

    Wow, what a wonderful review! I’ve read a lot of reviews for this book but yours is the first that feels balanced. I do noticed that short story writers are now being compared to the greats of the genre – Hemingway or Carver or someone else. Thanks for the link to Jenn’s post. I will click over and read what she has to say on the matter.

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  16. Susan

    I like reading your comments on what makes a memorable short story. Emotion IS everything, isn’t it? One of my favorite short stories ever is Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory. Each time I read it, I weep — not cry, but weep!!

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  17. Melanie ()

    I loved these even though I would hesitate to compare her with Lahiri. I noticed the lack of closure, but that seems common particularly in this genre and chalked it up to her style. I especially liked the first story.These stories served as fascinating windows into military life and I always appreciate learning about that which I will never experience. Like you I am disappointed by over hyped books often and continue to fall for them anyhow. 🙂 Great review – I like the comparison with Hemingway and now I want to read it.

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  18. Zara ()

    Hello! Where to start? I have so many points on which to reflect! I haven’t read many short stories, I borrowed a collection once from the library which in hindsight was actually very memorable (one of the stories was set on a Scottish Island and involved infanticide, another set by a pool and another with wind-chimes and a hippy woman.) I don’t remember engaging emotionally with these stories, I remember when the story fits together or jars apart at exactly the right unexpected points. I also remember over riding images or settings that really take me to that place and know the people. I will try and find a copy of A Clean Well Lighted Place.

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  19. Bookfool, aka Nancy ()

    You love short stories?!! Why did I not know this about you? 🙂 I’m a big fan of short stories, too, but they have to be complete and it is definitely difficult to find authors who do short stories well. This one’s on my wish list, so I’ll bear in mind that she’s not quite “great,” yet, but . . . worth reading, yes? I haven’t yet read Jumpha Lahiri, but I have a book of her short stories. Not sure, but I think she’s on my challenge shelf.

    Off the top of my head, Simon Van Booy, Chekov and Nabokov are among my favorite short story writers. Oh, and my friend, John Floyd. His stories crack me up.

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  20. Gayle ()

    Great review. I think I liked this collection more than you did, but as I was reading your review, I thought to myself, “I couldn’t have recollected the plots of any of those stories without this post.” That’s definitely not a good sign – the stories were quite enjoyable to read, but in the end they didn’t pack the punch that you were looking for.

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  21. Lisa

    Thanks for such an honest and thorough review. It’s always nice to read a review that differs from the majority; I feel like I’ve got a more balanced idea of what to expect from the book.

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  22. Dreamybee

    I think you hit the nail on the head–it’s the emotional ties that you are able to form with a character and his or her situation that make a story great, whether it’s, “Wow, I can totally relate,” or “God, I can’t even imagine.”.

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  23. Janice

    I am a woman and I love reading this kind of book. Something that could be a source for learning and ideas growing up with womanhood.

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  24. jdfield ()

    I was drawn by your reference to Hemingway’s short stories at the start, which I love as well. There seems to be a clear parallel, to me, between this and ‘Men without women’ no?
    I now, of course, have to go and hunt down my hemingway short stories…

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