“Eleven Days” has been sitting on my ‘to be read’ pile for about six months. The subject matter of a contemporary American military man made me slightly wary of approaching it; I wasn’t sure I would really enjoy it. However, I found the book difficult to put down once I started getting into the story of a single mother named Sara whose son Jason is a member of a special operations team and has gone missing during a mission. The location of where he went missing is classified and she has no idea what might have happened to him. She’s suspended in time. The novel follows a period of eleven days until the point she finally discovers what’s become of him. In between we’re given the back story of Sara’s relationship with an elusive man who works for the CIA and who fathered her son. The author describes Jason’s development and his choice to join the military after 9/11. With exquisite detail and thoughtful insight she details his training in preparation for important missions which demand highly refined skills. The stark realism of Carpenter’s subject coupled with her characters’ deeply profound meditations on the nature of war lead to poetic insight and a deeply engaging story.
It’s impressive how intricately the author details the strenuous training Jason goes through. Alongside the arduous physical demands, the soldier’s most profound development is psychological. Here Carpenter meditates on different levels required in training to deal with battle over time: “Pain management allows you to move through the moment; expectations management allows you to move through the day; and anger management allows you to move through being denied not only any privacy but any acknowledgement of being you.” The way civilians manage their state of being day to day totally shifts when those people are indoctrinated into military service. Personal ego is necessarily set aside because the operation is what takes precedence.
Does this mean that to be in the military necessitates turning oneself into a thoughtless tool to be wielded by some strategic general? What this novel showed me is that there is a strange alchemy which occurs when a highly intelligent individual willingly engages in a cause which is much larger than him. “Somewhere he had developed a deep belief that a man was someone who acted, not someone who spoke, and that honor was about discretion and progress.” Jason’s faith in the values of serving his country doesn’t mean blindly following. He’s shown to be a highly intelligent and incredibly well-read person. Turning into a soldier doesn’t annihilate his personality, but adds to his character since it makes him an active part of civilization’s movement forward. To engage in service without questioning whether your personal sacrifice might be for a flawed cause is anathema to most people. It’s acknowledged: “They are aware that what they do and the choice to do it will never make sense to most people.”
This novel captures how the meaning of battle has changed in the past several years from what it meant before the rising fear of terrorism. There are no longer any clear time lines for war or a sense of it being declared or ending. “The definition of success in wartime as Jason’s generation knew it was the prevention of future bloodshed, the corralling of ‘terror.’” Our society has increasingly become preoccupied with potential threats and reliable intelligence about the possibility of terror because of the understandable sense that attacks can spring up at anytime and anywhere. It’s interesting how this novel explores the creeping predominance of unspecified borders of military engagement because there are no longer any specifically demarcated battlefields.
The emotional heart of the story is, of course, the relationship between Sara and her son Jason. What this novel beautifully shows is the way love is honed and safeguarded in a relationship that is stretched by the kind of unknowningness and time-sensitive nature of military service. The connection between them is beautifully evoked in small personal interactions that signal carefully marshalled emotion. When separated from her child, Sara’s ability to quietly endure is a testament to her faith and love for her son. At one point it is described that for a sniper “Stillness, it turns out, is an athletic experience.” The same could be said for the training and emotional control needed by a mother whose child is actively serving. “Eleven Days” is an excellently crafted intelligent novel which incorporates an impressive understanding of the mechanics and psychological processes of the military.