What a satisfying and haunting reading experience Katey Schultz provides in her new novel. Still Come Home is set in Afghanistan and takes the reader into the experience of four main characters, each of whom negotiates the terror and loss of that endless conflict. Summing up the harsh landscape and the muddle of that war, one character observes, “The only way to win is to survive.”
This character, Second Lieutenant Nathan Miller, is in his fourth tour of duty. Haunted by the loss of a man in his command, he carries the increasingly heavy burden of survival–his own survival, that of his men, also of his marriage. On one hand, he hopes to do some good, always, however, with the awareness that “anytime [his] platoon tries to bring aid to people in need, they’re at risk of getting shredded by a roadside bomb.” While he carries the guilt and grief of losing a man, so too does his wife, who has lost a child and feels herself losing her husband as well. “What I want to know,” she says, “is what’s so great about it? What do they give you that we can’t?” Waiting, he reflects, is the only thing he and his wife share.
The reader is also taken into the lives of a second couple tested by the war, Asseya and Rahim. In Aaseya, Schultz vividly presents an Afghan woman’s experience of repression in a village “the size of a flea.” Aaseya has had some education, she is curious about the larger world, but her world is almost totally circumscribed. She is limited in what she can do, where she can go. On a morning stroll, she muses, “It’s the walking more than anything that pleases her–the suggestion she could just keep going.” Her husband Rahim is, on one hand, part of this regime of repression. “Her restraint in his presence,” we learn, “reassures him of his power, perhaps the only thing that remains his own in a country torn to bits.” On the other hand, we also see in Rahim’s background how he has been brutalized and damaged. Schultz’s treatment of this character, which could have been one dimensional, is nuanced.
And well into the novel, a fourth character: Into Aaseya’s life comes a boy, a lost child that she takes under her wing. It is an act of hope, an act of love, as the story moves to its culmination–ground operations, Taliban, gunships, all persuasively handled by this skillful writer. Schultz weaves her narrative threads and the lives of these characters together in a conflict where no one really wins.
On display on virtually every page is Schultz’s excellent feel for detail. The impact of the climate: “The heat of the day almost immediately suffocates him, the sun pinking his skin into a perma-burn. It’s as though he’s a lobster, the light a buttery condiment of death.” The impact of harsh climate amplified by the extremities of war: “A stray dog trots beside them, ribcage like a xylophone beneath flea-scabbed skin.”
Many pleasures await in Still Come Home, a richly imagined, artfully executed piece of fiction. Highly recommended.