Review: Missionaries by Phil Klay

“Men are weak. Don’t ask if they are good or bad. We’re all sinful. Ask if they’re better or worse than the times they lived in.”

Phil Klay follows up his sensational short story collection “Redeployment” with an ambitious decades-spanning excavation of war and violence centred around America’s prolonged asymmetric warfare in Colombia.

Through the eyes of an expansive cast — burned-out war reporter Lisette Marigny, Marine medic Major Mason Baumer, cartel foot solider Abel, Colombian military officer Juan Pablo, and Chilean mercenary Diego — Klay unspools his players’ backstories, full of trauma and the scars of war, in the early sections of “Missionaries.” These first-person narrated passages act as psychological portraits, and are shuffled brilliantly to establish a sense of momentum; sheer page-turnability glittered with acute observations about humankind’s addiction to warfare.

Later in “Missionaries,” for its final act, Klay shifts to a third-person perspective, where each of his characters converge spectacularly, if not somewhat convolutedly, and not altogether seamlessly. Klay’s ability to write about war — the violence, the chaos, the ambiguities — is unequalled. He’s been there, done it, lived it, and it shows in the smallest details. But where “Redeployment” read like short-burst dispatches from Iraq, and Klay’s authorship was ethereal, here you can feel a slight heavy-handedness when his characters intersect for the finale. It feels like fiction.

Which is the trouble, perhaps, writing realistically about war, where the only things guaranteed, regardless of our justifications for it, are bloodshed, mayhem and death. Klay has no qualms detailing the true costs of it; I’m just not sure whether that always makes for a great novel. But if anyone’s going to prove me wrong, it’s Klay.

ISBN: 9781838852320
ISBN-10: 1838852328
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 416
Published: 17th November 2020
Publisher: A&U Canongate

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