Maybe if you only understand half of what a person says, you can more readily read the sincerity of their gestures. Maybe language is much less important than I think it is, and therefore much less frightening.
When Margaret Brickshaw and her husband arrive in Jordan, Cassie Hugo thinks she might have finally found a friend. But the two have little in common besides being military wives who have followed their husbands to the Middle East. Cassie is a play-it-safe rule-follower, while Margaret prefers to ignore the cultural norms and explore on her own. When a fender bender sends Margaret to the police station one afternoon, Cassie is left to watch her baby boy. Hours pass without any word from Margaret, and, desperate to figure out what’s wrong, Cassie finds her diary and begins piecing together the person she thought she knew.
The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon (author of the short story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone) is a novel that absolutely surprised me. This tale of friendship in a foreign land hooked me from page one. Fallon’s writing and amazing sense of voice make each character come alive. The story alternates between Cassie’s narration in the present and Margaret’s diary entries. Each woman is so well-developed and their relationship feels extremely realistic.
Both outcasts in their own way, Cassie and Margaret band together out of survival. However, the women’s friendship is anything but pretty. Cassie resents Margaret’s life—her dutiful husband, the baby she can’t have—and Margaret isn’t fond of Cassie’s paranoid nature. But both have marriages that are straining under the weight of infertility or distrust. Fallon’s portrayal of a military marriage is eye-opening and raw.
One of the best parts of this book is the setting. I thoroughly enjoyed the rich details about Jordan, which made me feel like I was there. Fallon actually lived as a military wife in Jordan, so the descriptions of the people, places, and food feel real. It was fascinating to learn about the Jordanian culture and what is considered acceptable and inappropriate in that society. I think Fallon did a great job of interpreting the experience of an American living in such a different place and trying to fit in.
It was also interesting to learn about what was happening in Jordan and the Middle East in 2011, when the novel takes place. Events that would seem insignificant to Americans are immediate dangers to the characters. The political situation is as much a character in the novel because it often affects the decisions of the protagonists. Cassie and Margaret, opposite in attitude, represent the tension between wanting to enjoy life in a different country and battling the fear of foreign dangers.
Overall, this is a beautiful, well-written story about how kindness, friendship, and otherness translate between cultures. You’ll fall in love with these two women and will want to keep turning the page to see where their story goes.