A young veteran returns from Iraq to that which is not war, but not quite peace either, in Roxana Robinson‘s novel “Sparta.”

For four years, Lt. Conrad Farrell’s life was an endless stream of action and reaction. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs), Iraqi insurgents, and the sudden crack of an AK-47 or shriek of an injured civilian were all met with muscle memory, instinct, and Marine Corps protocol.

Honorably discharged and physically sound, Conrad finds himself hurled back into civilian life where just being conscious is like walking across a minefield. Loud noises snap him into fight or flight mode; he meets glass-windowed suburban buildings and large groups in train stations and on sidewalks with debilitating hyper-vigilance.

"Sparta" by Roxana Robinson. Publisher: Sarah Crichton Books (June 4, 2013).
“Sparta” by Roxana Robinson. Publisher: Sarah Crichton Books (June 4, 2013).

Conrad tries to find footing in his post-war life by immersing himself in his pre-war environment at his childhood home in Westchester with his bookish and liberal, upper-middle class family in the familiar embrace of his estranged college girlfriend, Claire, whom he met in a seminar on Homer at Williams College.

As he feel in love with Claire, Conrad also became equally enamored with the Iliad, the Pelonnesian War, and the Spartan ideals of honor, courage, and Semper Fidelis.

Robinson describes Conrad’s interior landscape with poignancy and precision. The reader enters Conrad’s mind — not at all a comfortable place to be — and shares his frustrations, rage, remorse, and rare moments of clarity and calm as he clumsily attempts to gain control over his stateside life while vignettes from his time in-country provide context and insight into his current struggles.

Although he is offered love, support, and an ear “for whenever you need to talk” by those around him, Conrad avoids seeking treatment for his insomnia, nightmares, headaches, and fits of blinding rage.

As one might do to a likely victim in a horror as she slowly wanders in to a dimly-lit room as ominous music plays, the reader finds himself silently yelling at Conrad, “Don’t do it! Turn around! Go get help!”

Author Roxana Robinson. Photo by David Ignaszewski.
Author Roxana Robinson. Photo by David Ignaszewski.

What’s most striking about Conrad isn’t his individuality, but rather his universality. No doubt his reactions and interactions have been and are being experienced by countless veterans trying to find their place in civilian life and navigate relationships that have been put on hold all while dealing with post-traumatic stress and self-medication.

Indeed, considering that Robinson acknowledges her sources — “Iraqi war veterans who shared their stories” — for their generosity and trust, Sparta could just as easily be classified as non-fiction with Conrad serving as a mouth-piece for the voices of many. However, the Everyvet quality of the main character is the also the novel’s greatest flaw.  Only rarely does it feel like Robinson made a full, distinct person out of Conrad; he feels more like a sketch than a finished painting.

Author Roxana Robinson will join fellow authors Cara Hoffman  and Artis Henderson for a talk entitled “Women Writers on the Cost of Combat” moderated by author Amanda Eyre Ward at 2 p.m. in the west terrace of the Central Library (third floor).

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Steffanie is a University of Incarnate Word graduate, former Twig Bookshop employee, the current Editorial Assistant for Trinity University Press, and a native San Antonian.