Told in the narrative voice of Lara McCauley, wife of an American journalist posted to Beirut during the civil war of 1983, this novel contrasts the brutality of war with the internal struggle of a woman caught in a bad marriage and unable to break away.
Lara’s husband, Barrett McCauley (Mac), is a brutal, careless man who views his wife as his personal property, although he is chronically unfaithful and only intermittently affectionate. At the Commodore Hotel, the unofficial headquarters of the Beirut press corps, Lara makes friends with Thomas, a bit of an outcast now that the McCauleys have arrived. Masking her unhappiness with endless rationalization, Lara nurtures a harmless attraction to Thomas: “Fluid in the languages and cultures of other lands, he was at home in none.”
A hotbed of warring factions, the Marines about to enter the fray as peacemakers in a land that has never known peace, Lara’s small drama is acted out against a difficult terrain, a woman terrified by the violence that fills the days and the nights in Beirut.
This is an inescapable war zone with its recurring carnage, a mix of Syrians, Lebanese, Israeli’s, Americans, Palestinians, Maronite Christians versus Druze, Hezbollah, CIA, the ever-changing cast as volatile as the weapons that explode throughout the city.
Lara’s immaturity is stunning and dangerous, blundering through traditions in her quest to find comfort and expiate her sins, minor as they are, “the ugly American” writ small but deadly, the only frame of reference Lara’s perspective and need for answers. Reminiscent of Hilary Mantel’s Frances in Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, Lara does not belong in this place, hasn’t the temperament to survive it, although she does find work for a while as a film editor.
In this tense novel, the debris of death clears incrementally, allowing a view of passionate individuals, true believers, arrogant opportunists, helpless civilians and the international journalists in search of the story, “a place where rampant evil was an inventive, daily occurrence.”
But it is Lara who brings danger into her home and to those around her in her constant demand for information in the midst of chaos, cloaked as a perpetual victim of circumstances, her passivity inciting events that spiral out of control. Unable to leave her husband, Lara clings to this threadbare security in spite of the disdain shown by an intransigent husband, and to a romance that exists more in her imagination than reality. Out of place and out of her depth.
1983 Beirut is a date that marks the beginning of an ideological struggle that culminates in the destruction of the Twin Towers. To the end, Lara remains oblivious, if generically contrite, skilled in the art of not-my-fault, confronted finally by an elderly woman: “You amaze me Lara. All this time here and still you are so clumsy, still you trample like an elephant into such delicate areas.”