Written by Derek B Miller – Whether through good fortune, or more likely canny planning by the marketing department at Faber & Faber, Miller’s second novel arrives at an opportune time. As the United Kingdom digests the findings of the Chilcot Enquiry, The Girl in the Green takes us back to the first Gulf War – Operation Desert Storm. Then, through the eyes of its three main protagonists, we see the aftermath.
It’s quite a shift in setting for Derek B Miller – his excellent first book was set in Norway – but he pulls it off with aplomb. No second novel difficulties here.
Iraq, 1991. Private Arwood Hobbes is bored and frustrated. The Iraqi army, which transgressed by invading Kuwait, has been defeated and he didn’t get to fire a single shot in anger. Manning a checkpoint in the desert, he is approached by Thomas Benton, a British journalist embedded with US forces. Benton is also disappointed, this time because he feels he hasn’t got the real story of the war, by which he means the story of the local population.
Benton is able to persuade Hobbes to let him pass through to Samawah, so that he can report upon rumours of a Shiite uprising against the Sunni Baathist Party. Once there he is caught up in a brutal attack by Iraqi forces which the US Army, under the terms they operate by, is unable to prevent. Benton barely makes it out of the town alive, bringing with him a young girl, dressed in green. As they race for the safety of the US checkpoint, Hobbes comes to meet them, and together the pair try to secure safe passage for the young girl as Iraqi forces surround them. After a tense stand off, Benton and Hobbes think they have been successful and begin walking to safety, only to have an Iraqi colonel shoot her in the back.
Both men are changed irrevocably by the incident, though it is Hobbes who will show it first. Firstly, he attacks his commander for not preventing the murder. Later, having been disciplined by the Army and sent to see out his service in an aid camp, he recklessly walks through a mine field to save a child, to the horror of aid worker Marta Strom. Benton is at the camp to interview Strom for a feature for The Times, and feels guilty for what has happened to Hobbes.
For Benton the change is more insidious. Back home he finds it difficult to return to family life, becoming distant from his wife and terrified of the responsibility of bringing up his own young daughter. His home life is a mess, and he hides from it by taking foreign assignments that allow him to escape from his wife’s judgement.
You’ll soon realise that The Girl in Green is a powerful indictment of the West’s failures in the Middle East. Miller himself works for the UN in the cause of disarmament, but his novel avoids polemic. Instead, through Benton, Hobbes and Strom he reveals the human cost of war and failed foreign policy. In many ways it is reminiscent of Don Winslow’s The Cartel, which is a tour de force that examines the war on drugs. The violence may not be as graphic, but the book has all the emotional wallop.
The narrative moves to 2013 and Benton is surprised to hear from Hobbes. A video of a group of refugees being killed in a mortar attack has gone viral; the image of another beautiful young Iraqi girl being caught in the attack has somehow captured the public imagination. (Perhaps Miller was inspired by photography from a terrorist attack in Afghanistan in 2011, which captured a girl in a green dress crying out.) Out of the blue, Benton is contacted by Hobbes, and challenged to come out to the desert to report on it. Hobbes is convinced that this young girl in green is still alive, and persuades Benton that they can find her and atone for the girl they couldn’t save.
In Baghdad, the pair makes contact with Strom and persuade her to give them a driver to take them to the attack site. But their mission is fraught with danger; Islamist terrorists have been active in the area, and outside of the capital Iraq is effectively lawless, a failed state.
The story of ageing men trying to redeem themselves through saving a young girl in peril certainly has the potential for sentimentality, but Miller is too skilled to fall into that trap. Hobbes has spent the intervening years running guns and it’s clear he’s beyond saving… The Girl in Green is one of those books that will definitely stay with you a long time after you’ve closed its covers.
Faber & Faber
CFL Rating: 5 Stars