My Life as a Foreign Country review – a compulsive, fevered confessional of war

Brian Turner, a former army sergeant, captures US conflict down the generations in a gripping memoir

Near the end of his book, Brian Turner, formerly sergeant Brian Turner of the US infantry in Iraq, now Brian Turner, Lannan literary fellow and TS Eliot prize nominee, asks a question: "How does anyone leave a war behind them, no matter what war it is, and somehow walk into the rest of his life?" That question is given many partial answers in these unnumbered pages – from the escapism of sex and drugs to the oblivion of suicide – but the book itself is the best of them. Turner leaves his war behind in his sentences and paragraphs, he gets it out in the open, and trusts it might stay there.

Written in episodic fragments that take in not only his own wars (Bosnia, Iraq) but those of his father, uncles, grandfathers and great grandfathers (Vietnam, Iwo Jima, Gettysburg), My Life as a Foreign Country is a kind of dream diary of American intervention and conflict, a fevered confessional, rooted in one voice, stretching over generations. In attempting to inhabit the universal soldier Turner sometimes becomes overwhelmed by his role in the enormity of the collective slaughter: asked during a writer's prison visit "how many did you kill?" he whispers "1.2 million".

Half awake, in the opening chapter, he imagines himself, as "a drone aircraft plying the darkness above my body, flying over my wife as she sleeps beside me…" The night-vision hallucinations that are fed back into Turner's haunting and haunted prose dwell periodically on the warrior code of his childhood in Fresno, California: learning to form a fist in the martial arts dojo his father constructed in their suburban garage, feeling the blade of a machete that his grandfather used to kill a Japanese officer he stumbled over in the jungles of Guam. Turner joined up as soon as he could to prove that, like those men who had created him, he too "was willing and prepared to crawl through the mud and muck any time of day or night, winter spring summer fall you name it, I was prepared to low-crawl with my face down in the nastiest, foulest brackish sludge and sewer the world could offer…" It felt like his fate.

He got all that he wished for. The best of his shrapnel-like chapters, which come at you from all angles, capture in brutal detail exactly how it felt to be the faceless invader of other people's worlds, carrying not only the hi-tech apparatus of protection and aggression, but also the dislocation of being so far from home. Turner's body armour did not protect him from his fears or his conscience or his past. He does his duty, leads convoys through the land of the roadside bomb, puts the faceless enemy in the crosshairs of his assault weapon, just as he knows his own face or groin or heart, might be in theirs – but he remains, second by second, alive to the absolute surreality of his chosen life.

In a section that turns the phrase "the soldiers enter the house" over and over, until it becomes a mantra, or a kind of archetypal race memory, Turner becomes both terrifying participant and horrified observer in a routine night raid on a insurgent-suspect's home: "The soldiers enter the house with pixelated camouflage, flex cuffs, ChemLights, door markings, duct tape… They enter the house and shout 'Honey, I'm home!' and 'Heeeeeeeere's Johnny!' The soldiers enter the house with last will and testaments sealed in manila envelopes half a world away… They kick in the door and enter the house with the memory of backyard barbecues on their minds. They kick in the door while cradling little sisters in their arms…"

Turner writes this no doubt with Tim O'Brien's Vietnam memoir The Things they Carried in mind – but he adds a layer of alienation that O'Brien didn't dare: his raid ventures a hearts and minds ending: "The soldiers enter the house and take off their dusty combat boots and pull out an anthology from an assault pack, Iraqi Poetry Today, and commence reading poems aloud … and say to the frightened little children, softly, with their palms held out in the most tender of gestures they can offer – 'All is well, little ones, all is well …'"

In measuring reflexively how it was with how it could have been, Turner holds on tight to his humanity. The sense of being there and not there is perhaps common to all wars, but his compulsive prose captures the authentic contemporary texture of that state – heightened by news and entertainment media cliches and the outsourcing of destruction to technology. Half the time, as a result, in this most compulsive of survivor's tales, you are not quite sure what is true and what is not – and that seems precisely his hard-won purpose.


Tim Adams

The GuardianTramp

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