Modern warfare is, on the surface, different from the past. After all, technology has changed, methods of fighting have changed, even the definition of the “good guys” and the “bad guys” has changed. But what hasn’t changed is that men are men, and even army men will get married. Army wives have been around as long as the army has been around, and Leslie Lokko’s latest novel, A Private Affair shows us some insight into the separate world that army wives inhabit. For one thing, the army wife must first and foremost share her husband with the army, in fact must realise that he is married to the army first, and in some ways she is expected to have married the army as well. Then there is the “no-man’s-land” of secrecy, hidden knowledge, political undercurrents, and that’s just inside the army base. If the unit is stationed in a foreign country, as is the case for most of Leslie Lokko’s novel, then there is the added danger of sharing information outside the army’s walls.
In A Private Affair, the perfect army wife is personified in Abby Barclay. Brought up as an “army brat”, she knows from first-hand experience what it is like to have the army as a member of the family. Next we look at Meaghan Astor, newlywed and newly entered into the army’s mysteries. She has launched herself out of a desperate and brutal home life to acceptance and love with Tom, the 2/i/c (second-in-command) to Abby’s husband Ralph. There are two other main characters, who contrast with each other almost to the point of ridicule. Sam Maitland, a successful and intelligent entertainment lawyer in London and briefly LA, and Dani Kingsley-Safo, native to Sierra Leone, brought up in poverty, not quite prostitution, and aspiring for something more meaningful than seeking out a man to pay for her next meal.
There are stories within stories in this novel, and for a while I found myself unsure which character I was following, or when – as the novel starts in the present and then moves from each character’s past to show how her decisions and actions have led to the turning point of the novel. But there is a very neat symmetry as it turns out all four women are linked by one man, one army man that is, and that he can bring together these four women from four such different backgrounds is testament to the “melting pot” philosophy in action that is the British Army.
Once I got into the rhythm of the book, I was less confused about where and when I was reading about, and the characters’ stories seemed to flow more. Still I think Leslie Lokko has more to say about army life, and about army wives, that she has only hinted at here. Perhaps for another book, or just food for thought.
Available now: Random House RRP$24.99