Roxana Robinson’s Sparta is a novel about the estrangement from society and normal life that modern soldiers experience upon their return from war. It made my heart ache from the first page to the last.
Conrad Farrell, a college graduate majoring in classics, was inspired both by the classical writers glorifying war, honor, loyalty and commitment, and the recruiters on campus giving inspirational speeches about the Marines. Conrad wanted a great challenge in his life; he wanted to do something serious; he wanted to become a man. He joined the Marine Corps.
After four years in Iraq, Lieutenant Farrell gets an honorable discharge from active duty and comes back home to Katonah, New York. He has become a man—mature, competent, brave, respected. He is ready to be a civilian again and pick up where he left.
But he can’t.
He doesn’t fit in here anymore. At the officers’ training school and in-country, he was taught how to detach himself from civilian life, but no one taught him how to reconnect with it. Civilian life has become a “parallel universe where he is absent.” He can’t even explain his confusion. He says to his family that he “feels as though he’s standing outside. He can see everyone in here, rushing around and doing things, and he can’t get in.” So he can’t connect with them or with his girlfriend.
He knows that he’s safe now, yet there are so many things around him that trigger his panic attacks, bringing flashbacks of the terrors in the war zone, thus causing headaches, insomnia, and paranoia.
Conrad has all the symptoms of PTSD, but he feels ashamed to seek medical help. In-country, admitting any weakness, emotional or physical, was betrayal of trust. As a commanding officer, he could never admit fear. Now he’s back home, but he still thinks of himself as a Marine. Recording his problems on paper at the VA “would be failing as an officer.” He doesn’t want this to be on his record. He’s afraid that people would feel disgust toward him.
Throughout the book, the tension was building up, making me feel as if a bomb was ticking, ticking, and any minute it would go off.
At the end, I couldn’t even see the print through my tears. I cried buckets.
Roxana Robinson is a wonderful, extremely talented writer. I was fortunate to hear her speak this summer at the annual National Book Festival in Washington D.C., organized by the Library of Congress. She introduced Sparta and talked extensively about her research for the book—reading documents, meeting with war veterans and their families, as well as the enormous challenge that she, a Quaker with a conscientious objection to any war, had faced while writing the novel.
She said, “As a novelist, my job is not to judge, but to understand what it’s like to be a Marine and to fight in war.”
No, she doesn’t judge, but she surely understands what it’s like to fight in war, and she makes us understand the challenge that our soldiers face both in-country and back home. To me, both experiences seem heartbreaking.
I highly recommend this masterpiece. Five stars!