While I don’t quite remember what it was about the description of Siobhan Fallon’s upcoming The Confusion of Languages that caught my attention, I do know that my initial impressions while reading it were that this wasn’t the story I’d been expecting. In the case of The Confusion of Languages, I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all (especially since I can’t remember what it was I was expecting). On the contrary, I found the novel to be a fascinating character study of two American women living abroad and the unusual nature of their friendship.
Cassie is an experienced embassy wife. She and her husband, Dan, have been living in Jordan, the site of his latest posting, for a while and decide it’s about time they sponsor a few newcomers to the extended embassy family. Margaret and Cassie’s friendship appears to be on solid ground when a small fender-bender requires Margaret go to the police station to deal with the authorities. Cassie is left to babysit Margaret’s toddler son, Mather but as the day wears on, Cassie can’t get in touch with Margaret and the recent cracks in their friendship begin to come to light as Cassie passes the time reading Margaret’s diary and recalling her own impression of those early days.
While it was pretty straightforward in its approach and execution, I found the way Fallon played with time and perspective in the novel thoroughly engaging. Of course, I have an established fondness for novels that play with time in exactly this way and for such examinations of character and perspective as well. Though I’m not partial to first person narrations, the exception I make is when characters’ voices are well defined and distinctive and Cassie and Margaret’s voices are precisely that. Even without the headers to each chapter to indicate whose perspective it’s in, the pattern of speaking, of thought, of personality is enough to quickly make it clear for the reader.
As far as the way time is presented in the novel, Cassie’s sections time-stamped to show how long has passed since Margaret left to go to the police station include Cassie’s commentary on Margaret’s brutally honest diary as well as occasional glimpses of her own perspective on the same events. With each woman’s thoughts about the other laid bare, the complex web of friendship becomes an even more remarkable thing to examine. Everyone has judgmental thoughts about their friends and all relationships include betrayals though many are miniscule in comparison to some of the ones happening between Cassie and Margaret. But the admiration and affection shine through too.
It’s unclear whether these women would be friends anywhere else in the world but the circumstances of their lives as foreigners in a country with a culture so incredibly different from the one they know adds another layer to their friendship and another theme for exploration to the narrative as a whole. Margaret is excited to see Jordan, its people, and its history first-hand. Cassie adheres much more closely to the recommendations of the embassy, constantly scolding Margaret in her disregard for Jordanian customs and the line between the Jordanian citizenry and their place as not just Americans abroad but Americans related to the embassy and its officials.
In all cases the novel seems to prefer wading through the gray, letting it ripple out from the issues and lap at the readers’ feet leaving it for them to decide who is right and who is wrong in each situation.
The Confusion of Languages will be available in stores on June, 27, 2017.