Author: Brian Van Reet
Publisher:Vintage (Random House UK)
It is the spring of 2003 and coalition forces are advancing on Iraq. Images of a giant statue of Saddam Hussein crashing to the ground in Baghdad are being beamed to news channels around the world. Nineteen-year-old Specialist Cassandra Wigheard, on her first deployment since joining the US army two years earlier, is primed for war.
For Abu al-Hool, a jihadist since the days of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, war is wearing thin. Two decades of fighting – and the new wave of super-radicalised fighters joining the ranks in the wake of the September 11 attacks – have left him questioning his commitment to the struggle.
When Cassandra is taken prisoner by al-Hool’s mujahideen brotherhood, both fighters will find their loyalties tested to the very limits.
This fast-paced, hard-hitting account of eight weeks in the lives of a soldier and her captor forces us to reconsider the simplistic narratives of war spun by those in power. With its privileged insight into the reality of armed combat, Spoils shines a light on the uncertainty, fear and idealism that characterised the early days of one of the most important conflicts of our time.
For me, Spoils is a tricky book to write about. There were parts of it I found deeply fascinating and which really hooked me in – mainly the parts where Cassandra is in captivity, which were so disturbing but at the same time incredibly interesting to read about. The general theme of army life and conditions in Afghanistan is also one I found I became absorbed in.
I wasn’t overly keen on the way the novel was structured; I found the switches in narrator a little confusing. I usually really enjoy books that swap around a lot, but in Spoils I found it a bit off-putting at times. I think I really just wanted to read more about Cassandra’s capture, as that’s what really hooked me in from the synopsis! Unfortunately it takes a long time in the storyline before that actually happens, and I found myself feeling a bit impatient as I wanted the narrative to get to that point, despite knowing it would be disturbing / tricky at times to read. I understand that the section before that point is laying out the run-up to these events and really setting the scene, but I found that I much preferred reading the scenes about Cassandra’s captivity and how Abu al-Hool’s ‘brotherhood’ treated her, as it was just so intriguing and different to read about. I felt Cassandra’s captivity as if I was experiencing it myself, and this is a testament to Brian Van Reet’s writing and knowledge on the subject – very impressive.
I would recommend this novel, and feel it is an important novel to read especially with everything going on in the world today, and it’s certainly something different, as well as being a powerful read.