Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, December 19, 2016

Monday, December 19, 2016: Maximum Shelf: The Girl in Green

Houghton Mifflin: The Girl in Green by Derek B. Miller

Houghton Mifflin: The Girl in Green by Derek B. Miller

Mariner Books: Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Newsletter Sign-up

The Girl in Green

by Derek B. Miller

In his Scandinavian-set debut, Norwegian by Night, Derek B. Miller introduced readers to an elderly Korean War veteran finding his place in the modern world. In his sophomore novel, The Girl in Green, international affairs specialist Miller takes a giant step out of Norway to follow two unlikely heroes on an errand of mercy in one of the most dangerous places on Earth--modern-day Iraq, where the label "postwar" clashes with the reality of life for its citizens. As daring in execution as imagination, this adventure tale crackles with heart, charm and dark honesty.

During the uneasy ceasefire following the first Gulf War in 1991, an American soldier in his early 20s named Arwood Hobbes meets Thomas Benton, an older British journalist, in the midst of the "industrial and inescapable" boredom at his post 150 miles from the Kuwaiti border. As Arwood's superior officer explains with logic somewhat reminiscent of Heller's Catch-22, "[t]he State Department believes if we help these people now, they will hate us later," so the soldiers have nothing to do. Cocky and determined to get a local perspective on the Shiite rebellion, Benton takes Arwood's semi-dare to sneak over to a nearby town to interview Iraqis. When violence strikes and Arwood steps in to rescue Benton, the two find themselves trying to save a Kurdish girl in a green dress, but are unable to stop the teen's murder at the hands of a Ba'athist colonel. Arwood and Benton both lose a part of themselves when the girl dies. As Arwood says, "I think I have pretraumatic stress disorder. I'm stressed out from not being able to do the right thing." While the younger man receives an other-than-honorable discharge for assaulting the commanding officer who failed to support him in the standoff over the girl, Benton takes the quieter approach of going on with his life, but drifts emotionally from his wife and young daughter.

Twenty-two years later, Benton hears from an agitated Arwood, who believes he just saw the girl in green, un-aged and in the same dress, in an Internet video of a mortar attack on refugees in Kurdistan. After a show of token resistance, Benton agrees to meet in a refugee camp in Dohuk. He knows the girl in green died of a gunshot wound in 1991, and that the lookalike in the video must surely have died in the bombing, but Arwood's argument that the universe has granted them a chance to right a terrible wrong compels him nonetheless. However, he quickly finds that Arwood, always a wild card, has grown into an enigma who never tells the entire truth, lives by his own moral code, and could possibly be quite insane.

With the help of Swedish humanitarian worker Märta, the pair set off into the desert to find a girl who, in their minds, exists as both dead and alive and who might save them--if they save her first. The mystery of who and what Arwood Hobbes has become--criminal, hero, madman--baffles Benton as he quickly realizes his partner hasn't shared the whole plan. When Arwood's quixotic mission lands the men and two innocent bystanders in the hands of ISIL, they will need the skills and connections of every ally they have, plus a measure of blind luck, to survive. Attempting their rescue is a diverse secondary cast including refugees, NGO workers, international helicopter pilots and strong female characters including Benton's now-grown daughter, Charlotte, whose attempts to locate her father and talk some sense into him connect her with an adorably overconfident aid worker named Miguel.

Miller pulls off an amazing feat of alchemy here, because this chronicle of trauma, violence and endless conflict is the unlikely feel-good story of the year. Not only does he pepper the narrative with enough absurdist humor and one-liners to keep readers helplessly grinning at the darkest moments, he hits points of emotional resonance with the precision of a sniper. Miller understands the story readers most need, the great welling of satisfaction that comes from watching two off-kilter heroes burst messily through walls of red tape, armed men and cultural boundaries to save one innocent stranger. Arwood and Benton's is a story filled with human motivations like saving a life, healing a hurt, and the deceptively simple desire to do the right thing fueled by a moral statement straight out of Horton Hears a Who: "...a person's a person no matter how small, right?" Miller's style is an all-terrain vehicle, though, and he knows when to switch gears, skillfully exploring the moral implications and ambiguities of war while avoiding partisan politics and armchair quarterbacking. 

In Arwood and Benton, readers will see the kind of big personalities that carry movie franchises. Whether our heroes are wondering where they went wrong (usually Benton), or introducing a new half-baked plan sure to save the day unless it gets them killed (usually Arwood), just going along for the ride would be entertaining enough, but Miller also provides ample food for thought and an ending that roars. A word of advice: buy The Girl in Green rather than borrow it. With the proliferation of sharp one liners, occasional droplets of poetry like "the buzuq sings a song for which there will never be any words," and insightful distillations of the intricacies and contradictions of an American conflict that slides from phase to phase without ever ending, the urge to highlight and dog-ear will overcome even the most book-proud reader. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt , $26, hardcover, 336p., 9780544706255, January 3, 2017

Houghton Mifflin: The Girl in Green by Derek B. Miller

Derek B. Miller: The Space Between War and Peace

photo: Camilla Waszink

Derek B. Miller has worked on international peace and security for think tanks, diplomatic missions and the United Nations. His first novel, Norwegian by Night, was an Indies Choice Honor Book, an Economist Top Novel of 2013 and won the Crime Writers Association's John Creasey Dagger Award. The Girl in Green is his second novel. Miller lives in Oslo, Norway.

Was it easier to write Arwood, who's a wild card, or the level-headed but highly conflicted Benton?

Arwood's voice came to me completely and immediately--which is perhaps reason for concern. His insights, wisecracks, humor, keen observation for the absurd and deep moral understanding gave him a rich perspective and autonomy that swept me up while writing, and it was always a pleasure to return to his confident voice.

Benton is more intellectual, better educated, reserved by nature, and of course he's British. I've spent over two years of my life in Britain, studying at Oxford and then working in London, and I'm also there several times a year. So the U.K. is very close to my heart and I have an ear for the place, though it is mind bogglingly varied for such a small country. Still, it was harder writing a British voice (of a type) than cutting loose with Arwood.

Iraq holds a specific place in the American consciousness. What's it like to write a book set during the conflicts of the '90s and the current millennium?

I wrote it in full awareness of our emotional baggage. It is very much because of that context that the book has the resonance that it does and why I suspect it will have a very long shelf life. I wanted to capture, harness and utilize these feelings. To the extent I succeeded, the story serves as a time capsule about our state of mind now. When a writer achieves this, the product can become a touchstone in our cultural memory because we can turn back to that novel later--after the feelings have passed and our thoughts have moved on--and re-enter those worlds. That is very much what I tried to do here in as engaging a way as I could, though I realize my style and form are a little unconventional.

One way I worked a sense of moral dilemma into the core of the novel was giving Arwood an other-than-honorable discharge. He was reprimanded for striking an officer, which is fair enough, but his impetus for doing this was his inability to reconcile the law, the situation, and his deep sense of right and wrong. I think many former soldiers are having this problem, and I think we're all facing that now as a culture as we begin to lose our moral vocabulary and means of reasoning through what is right, what is wrong, and why. In my view, we have not even scratched the surface on what Iraq and Afghanistan have done to us. We are nowhere near understanding the implications yet. And because this is the future of warfare, we're going to need to.

There is going to be a tendency, I think, to group The Girl in Green with soldiers' stories from those wars. But I would caution against it. This book is not Yellow Birds or Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk--wonderful though they are. This is a story both about, and set within, the so-called peace we left behind. It is about the humanitarian actors who still press on now that the armor and aircraft are gone. It is about the everyday Iraqis who continue the work of building a stable and just society against all odds and compatriots who are trying to do the opposite. Whether I succeeded in all this is up to the reader, but I'm sure this is a different kind of story. It is not a war book. It's something else. Maybe it's too soon to know what it is yet.

To some U.S. citizens, Gulf II felt like a way to fix our issues with Gulf I, whether it was feeling that we left a specific perceived villain in power, a sense of anticlimax or even well-intentioned democratic ideals. Did you mean for the characters' rescue attempt to reflect the U.S.'s re-entry into Iraq?

George H.W. Bush was the kind of statesman who tended to personalize international relations. He sold the war to the American people in very personal terms. He talked about Saddam and how evil he was and how he was like Hitler. Now, I have no qualms with Bush calling Saddam evil. But when you define a problem in a certain way, it sets up expectations about the means of resolution. Bush personalized the war and sold it to the American public as a need to overcome the personification of evil embodied by Saddam. This is an American dramatic trope, and we've all seen that movie. The bad guy is supposed to get it--and get it bad--in the end. The story didn't end as it was supposed to. It was unresolved, in the American mind, in light of the expectations that were set. Bush and his communications people didn't understand that dramatic stories like war have to satisfy the expectations set for them.

The Girl in Green, though, is not a parable or morality play. There is no rescuing the past, though we can do it justice. I am situating the story in that liminal zone between war and peace and burrowing down into that to experience fully that unfamiliar space. I absolutely needed to find a way--find an actual story--that made the exploration and dramatic experience interesting and engaging. I knew I needed to link those time periods together across 20 years in a way that explored and projected all that haunting duality and traumatic continuity. Once I discovered the girl in the green dress, it all came together.

Arwood and Benton get themselves into this rescue mission in a way that eschews permission but feels heroic. However, they're crossing significant cultural boundaries and arbitrarily assuming the role of saviors in the process. Is this approach ever justified outside of fiction?

Justified? Yes.

There is no such thing as "done" nor unquestioning faith in our country or rules or systems. As people, as citizens, as the rulers of this country, we need to inhabit and animate our institutions--haunt them like ghosts in the machine--rather than submit to them and allow our spirits to be snuffed out. So, yes, sometimes we need to cross all kinds of boundaries. Civil disobedience is always an option. But when, why and how: that's where the thinking starts. That's the sharp edge of democracy.

How did your experience as a world traveler and longtime expat inform your ideas and perceptions when writing The Girl in Green?

To steal a line from Arwood, I sometimes think I've been to more places than Johnny Cash and seen more weird stuff than Han Solo. I think my writing is an explosive consequence of my education and experience, and my challenge as an artist is to direct the blast. I can't promise my readers a steady ride or a predictable one, but if you're willing to hold on, I'll do my best to take you to the most unexpected places in the most memorable and rewarding of ways. --Jaclyn Fulwood

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