I’ve read several fine novels dealing the affects of war on soldiers and their families but something else struck me about Marlene that I’ve never felt this strongly before in this kind of story. Readers have gotten used to the idea that returning soldiers are damaged, that PTSD is common and readapting to civilian society is incredibly difficult, that’s evident here too. However, what Marlene manages to convey is that we send many damaged souls to war in the first place and for that reason can’t expect them to come home as fully functioning individuals. There’s a more profound point here about the dysfunctionality of those parts of society where poverty, and poverty of aspiration are the norm.

This novel is as much about the women left behind as the two special forces soldiers and as much about the things they carry from their childhood, youth etc. The downward cycle of depression and violence in the novel is a direct result of the toxicity in the relationships between the characters, some of which relates to the effects on the men serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen but fundamental problems existed in all their lives anyway. The women bring their own dysfunction to the incendiary mix. Everyone is weighed down by decades of spiralling decline, of living in a town dominated by its military base, by generations of the dead being returned, the ingratitude for their service, the sense of boredom, poor living conditions, ingrained stereotyping, an inherited sense of inferiority, poor education and the castigation or forgetfulness of the outside world. This isn’t the American dream it’s the obverse – this is working class, garrison town reality. Psychological bruising begins young, war and absence exacerbate the condition. So the men and the women here are damaged characters and the affect of war is one, highly significant, element of the problem, but not the whole picture.

In Marlene what doesn’t kill you doesn’t make you stronger, it leaves the characters mentally and physically scarred. Dan and Richard are suffering from PTSD, blighted by gaping psychological wounds, untreated and festering. They’ve been discarded by the system. They don’t recognise how damaged they are, they function, to a degree they hold it together, live a half life. Dan represses his problems better than Richard who has wound up in gaol. Dan appears to be an anchor point as the novel opens. Richard’s wife, Nath, relies on Dan in her husband’s absence, his daughter, Mona, moves in with Dan after a fight with her mother. Richard and Nath are already on the road to destroying their relationship but it is Nath’s sister Marlene who will tear down any veneer of stability for all of them.

When Mona moves into Dan’s house the added responsibility of another human being throws him. He needs his routine, it’s part of his keeping it together, he can’t fathom an eighteen year old girl, (he’s thirty-seven). The order in his life; early rising, exercise, the spic-and-span apartment and spartan living is disrupted. Mona doesn’t see the effect her presence has on Dan.

‘If her mother was throwing in the towel, what was he supposed to do – he who knew nothing and had no desire to know anything about an eighteen-year-old girl whose head and heart were like a vat of boiling sulphur. His back wasn’t broad enough for this.’

He’s also trying to advise Nath, who’s living her own life while Richard is in prison, she’s convinced he won’t last long on the outside when he comes out anyway. Dan tries not to judge Nath for her affairs behind his friend’s back. Then Marlene arrives, accident prone, neurotic, semi-adrift – where Marlene goes the rain follows and Richard will be out in a few weeks. Nath palms Marlene off on Dan, he thinks she’s flaky but she keeps turning up, one time she crashes into Dan’s bike. Marlene is pregnant, despite that she and Dan have a relationship. Richard is released from prison, it isn’t long before he’s back to old ways or before he and Nath are hurting each other again. Even though:

‘…her feelings for Richard, so often manhandled by both of them, persisted come hell or high water.’

Inevitably the violence escalates, there’s a brooding sense that worse is to come. What control these characters have over their own lives disintegrates, apart they’re at risk, together they’re a ticking time bomb. Djian’s shattered prose is prefect for conveying the psychological disjunction of the characters, the punchy, staccato approach delivering the shock perfectly.

Djian is the author of Betty Blue and Elle. Marlene is translated by Mark Polizzotti.
Other Press, paperback, ISBN 9781590519875, 8/9/20

Review by Paul Burke

Personal read 5* Group Read 3½*