In Home Front, Kristen J. Tsetsi presents a searing examination of war and its effects on those who remain stateside while their loved ones are deployed in foreign lands. The novel follows the ups and (mainly) downs of a young woman named Mia whose significant other, Jake, is serving overseas in the Iraq War. Every day is a struggle for Mia: Though the evening news can’t give her anything more than a few sound bites, she can’t take her eyes off the television whenever the subject of the war arises. As if that weren’t enough, her would-be mother-in-law hounds Mia from a distance, always with the implication that nobody, especially Mia, is good enough for her “Jakey.” Meanwhile, Mia’s job as a cab driver has led to a complicated relationship with a traumatized Vietnam veteran, and her fascination with a painting in a local coffee shop offers the only potential solace in her otherwise overwhelming and emotionally fraught life.
In terms of writing, Tsetsi’s talents shine throughout the novel, and she reveals herself to be the rare sort of writer who can satisfy both emotionally and intellectually. Mia’s journey takes her through depths of self-pity, uncertainty, and despair, yet even in her most despairing moments, she is capable of profound flashes of insight. Most notably, she recognizes that there is no single attitude toward the Iraq War, no simple solution to the phenomenon of war in general. In this sense, Mia’s understanding of the war is likely an accurate reflection of the nation’s, and Tsetsi conveys her protagonist’s ambivalence in a way that is as true to life as it is cathartic, for Mia is ultimately a character who is split in two, both aware of the travesty and senselessness of war, but also painfully aware that the forces of politics and history are far too complex to dismiss with the simple bromides of bumper stickers, car magnets, and protest signs.
Its intelligent, honest treatment of war is not the only thing that Home Front has going for it. In many ways, it is an example of the kind of highbrow style that makes small presses so essential to the continued health of our literary landscape. Indeed, the novel’s pedigree goes at least as far back as “Editha,” a short story in which William Dean Howells examined the complexity of the Spanish American War from the perspective of a woman who insists that her fiance go off to fight, only to learn of his death in an early, unremarkable skirmish; the big difference here, of course, is that the scope of the novel allows Tsetsi to go further than Howells in examining many of the same issues. A more contemporary influence on Tsetsi may be Tim O’Brien, whose classic The Things They Carried also offers a complicated, ambivalent vision of war. In terms of style, Home Front is also reminiscent of many works by Don DeLillo — most notably Players, Running Dog, and, for its emotional density, The Body Artist. All told, Home Front is a moving novel whose emotional and intellectual complexity demands much of the reader but offers much more in return.