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book review

Canadian forces are pictured in the Panjwai district of Afghanistan on June 13, 2006. Kevin Patterson explores the psyche and culture of a military base in Afghanistan in his novel News from the Red Desert.John Moore/Getty Images

With News from the Red Desert, Kevin Patterson has crafted one of the finest war novels this country has ever seen, exploring a conflict many Canadians have already conveniently forgotten, or chosen to ignore.

The novel begins in Kandahar in December, 2001. The war in Afghanistan, it seems, is all but over: "It had taken 12 weeks. The whole country had seemed to lift up and tilt their way." In the glow of the quick victory over the Taliban, we are introduced to a handful of named characters, including Deirdre O'Malley, a young journalist newly arrived in the Red Desert – "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" – and Master Sergeant Demetrios Anakopoulus, in charge of the warehouse at Kandahar Airfield.

Within pages, though, the novel jumps ahead. The war in Afghanistan is far from over, and O'Malley is now a seasoned embedded journalist, returning to Afghanistan from Iraq. Her first encounter with Anakopoulus ("Of course they did not recognize one another. After five years, they'd hardly have been recognizable to their close friends back home, if they'd still had any.") sets in motion a series of events involving leaked war porn (photos and films from missions, revealing atrocities committed by the United States and its allies), an international scandal and investigation, with tensions rising to the breaking point.

For another writer, this single storyline would be more than enough for a novel. For Patterson, however, it forms just one small piece of the mosaic. The novel also follows the lives and work of rival generals, each staking a claim on the operation (one had an affair with O'Malley when they were both in Iraq); the community of expatriate Pakistanis who run the "Starbucks-in-camo" Green Beans coffee shop on the base; a Thai masseuse working in Afghanistan to send money home to her family; a Hollywood production crew scouting for a pro-military reality-TV competition called Stars Earn Stripes (which I was both shocked and disappointed to learn actually existed); and an interpreter named John Wayne, among others.

The novel, which initially seems to be O'Malley's story, fragments into disparate voices and storylines, spanning the population and culture of the base. While there is action, from occasional rockets landing in the compound to missions outside the fences, life at Kandahar Airfield is largely one of dull routine, with soldiers playing Call of Duty in their barracks, the support workers nipping out for cappuccinos. It is a high-stakes tedium, a pedestrian life elevated by constant threat.

"Though killing defines it, war is mostly not that," Patterson writes. "It is mostly eating and shitting and driving and washing and watching." The plainspoken authority of that observation comes not just from the characters, but from the author. Patterson, who used a stint in the Canadian military to pay for medical school, volunteered as a doctor for the Canadian mission serving in Kandahar in 2007. That experience lends an intimate depth, not just to the physical descriptions of the novel, but to its psychological reality, the interweaving of the individuals within the depersonalized khaki.

It also lends the novel a considerable urgency. While News from the Red Desert can rightly be compared to novels such as Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (still one of the best war novels ever written; it is actually read by one of the characters in Patterson's book), it also has much in common, in terms of tone and drive, with Dispatches, the seminal volume of immersive reportage from Vietnam by American journalist Michael Herr, who died earlier this year. With Patterson's coolly dispassionate prose, his clinical approach to both characterization and violence, News from the Red Desert rings with a sense of journalistic truth, unusual for a novel.

Structurally, however, readers may be reminded of Nashville, the 1975 film by Robert Altman. As the voices of the characters in the novel begin to overlap and echo, as the storylines begin to converge, actions unknowingly influencing actions, tensions begin to rise from their already elevated levels, not for the characters but for the reader. We know, from Altman, that once these characters come together, something terrible is going to happen.

And it does.

But it doesn't end there. At its core, News from the Red Desert is a novel of unintended consequences, of the impossibility of true understanding, not just between cultures but between individuals. With the distance of fiction, Patterson is able to explore the philosophies of war, the shifting parameters of engagement, but the fundamental truths of the novel lie in the deeply personal disappointments and frustrations, individual tragedies and injustices. News from the Red Desert is a powerful voice in an area where there are no answers, easy or otherwise. "Write whichever truth you need to," one of the characters says, late in the book. Thankfully, Patterson took that admonition to heart.

Robert J. Wiersema is the author of Before I Wake and Seven Crow Stories, to be published this fall.

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