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Review: Sand Queen by Helen Benedict

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Review by John for Sand Queen by Helen Benedict.

John’s quick take:  A searing novel about a female US soldier and a young local woman in the Iraq War – a damning condemnation of the war, its execution and the treatment of women in the army.

John’s description:  Kate Brady is a nineteen year old woman who joined the US army hoping to bring honor to her family and to help bring democracy to the Middle East. Instead she is shipped off to Iraq and finds herself in a US-army base guarding a makeshift prison full of mostly-innocent Iraqi civilians. While she has to handle a bemused and fearful local population in addition to the inmates, most of the time she is more at risk from her own predatory male colleagues than she is from the Iraqis.

Naema Jassim is a young medical student whose family has fled Baghdad hoping to find more peace away from the seething capital city. But while staying at her grandmother’s house her frail father and young brother are rounded up by US soldiers for no apparent reason and imprisoned in the camp that is being guarded by Kate. Prior to the US invasion her father had been imprisoned and tortured by Saddam Hussein’s security forces for not openly supporting Hussein’s Ba’ath party – now he is jailed by Hussein’s US enemies.

Naema travels to the camp desperately trying to find out information about her family but finds an implacable system that cannot or will not share any information. Naema tries to latch onto Kate but the US soldier, in common with her colleagues, is almost as bemused and ignorant as the civilians. Despite the dangers she has to face daily, Kate decides that she will try and help Naema.

But with no civilian authorities left in place Iraq is rapidly descending into chaos, made even worse as insurgents fight back against the US forces and factions in the country start to tear the society apart. Kate faces ever-more deadly threats from both inside and outside the camp and both she and Naema desperately cling to hopes that they can return to some sort of normal life.

John’s thoughts:  This is a powerful novel. I couldn’t for one second call it an enjoyable read as the content is raw, brutal, anger inducing and pretty depressing. But it is gripping and enlightening and I’m very glad that I read it.

I was prepared to hear about the sheer stupidity of the war, the chaos caused by lack of planning and forethought, the inefficiency and ineptitude of the war machine, the awful conditions in the Iraqi desert, the heart-stopping fear of fighting in a war and the tremendous bravery of the common soldiers – and the book delivered in spades on all of those fronts. What I was less prepared for was the truly dreadful treatment of female soldiers in the US army, the horrors that Iraqis had to face and the privations of soldiers returning from the war. These were thoroughly shocking.

Of course this is a novel so it could be said that it is not reporting facts, but Benedict carried out some thorough research, including interviews with over forty veterans of the war. It has the stamp of authenticity and is eminently believable.

In addition to being a war story, this is very much a tale of women’s place in the world. The US is supposedly one of the most enlightened and liberated countries in the world, yet its treatment of women in the army is barbaric. Iraq suffered under the oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein and yet Iraqi women had more autonomy than Muslim women in most of the Middle East. According to Benedict (and Naema) the Iraqi War and subsequent events have set back women’s rights by fifty years. Among other things, the book jacket describes Sand Queen as “at times funny” and “a story of hope”. I have to say that I didn’t see much of either of those things.

I’d rate this book 4 stars and thoroughly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the role of women in the army, women’s rights, the Iraqi War, the troubles in the Middle East, or war stories generally. But be warned, this is not a comfortable read.

Hardcover | 312 pages | Soho Press | August 2, 2011


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