Paul Klay has followed on from the success of his short story collection, Redeployment – the recipient of the National Book Award for Fiction, and lauded by none other than Barack Obama – with a debut novel entitled Missionaries.  Klay himself is a veteran of the US Marine Corps, and served in Iraq.

Missionaries is a work which encompasses relatively modern-day history, moving from the mid-1980s to almost the present day, with much of the action set in the mid-2010s.  The conflicts which it covers relatively briefly include the highly contested wars between America and Iraq, and America and Afghanistan respectively, and the consequences left in their wake.  The action then moves to Colombia, where violence perpetuated by narcos and guerrillas is rife, affecting the lives of so many citizens.  In Colombia, ‘the US has partnered with the local government to stamp out a vicious civil war and keep the predatory narco gangs at bay.’

The novel takes four protagonists as its focus – a US Special Forces medic named Mason; foreign correspondent Lisette; Colombian coca farmer Abel; and Juan Pablo.  Each chapter focuses on a different individual.

At the novel’s beginning, we are introduced to Abel, in a chapter which quickly spans his entire childhood.  He has grown up in the shadow of conflict, between guerrillas and paracos.  When he is just eight, his father tells him: ‘”When men with guns ask for something, there are no favors.  You only obey.”‘  Abel reflects: ‘To talk about this part of my life is to talk about another person, like a person in a story, a boy with a father and mother and three sisters; one pretty, one smart, and one mean…  Most people think that a person is whatever you see before you, walking around in bone and meat and blood, but that is an idiocy.  Bone and meat and blood just exists, but to exist is not to live, and bone and meat and blood alone is not a person.’

We meet Lisette in 2015.  She is living in Kabul, one of just a handful of special correspondents still remaining in Afghanistan’s capital city.  She comments: ‘When I first came here, I was full of rage at the indifference most people back home showed to the death of Afghans.  All these human beings, suffering, dying, and fighting…  These days the thought will sometimes run through my head as I lie in bed, trying to sleep: I am broken, I am broken, and I do not know how I will ever fix this whole I’ve carved into my soul.’

The first section of Missionaries follows Abel and Lisette, and the second Mason and Juan Pablo.  We meander in and out of their stories, each of which is suffused with a great deal of violence.  The violent scenes and occurrences kept wrenching me out of the story, and quickly become so commonplace in the narrative that they lost the majority of their power.  Klay’s prose is to the point, largely quite matter-of-fact, and his stories move along at a steady pace.  There is an urgency to the novel, but more in terms of the violence which is perpetuated throughout.

Klay undertook six years of research before embarking on Missionaries, which he carried out in both the United States and Colombia.  The ultimate aim of the novel is to examine ‘the globalization of violence through the interlocking stories of four characters and the conflicts that define their lives.’  He does set the scenery well, and understands what it is like to live in a culture of fear, as all of his characters do.  Missionaries is undoubtedly intelligent in what it divulges, and Klay’s research is far-reaching.  Whilst the author offers a lot of topics of interest, however, I felt as though these were never quite collated.

I do not feel as if the resolutions offered were highly satisfying; neither were the ways in which the individual stories come together.  There seems to be a lack of overall cohesion, and the novel reads more like a collection of loosely connected stories about four characters from different walks of life.  The novel’s structure is often rather too slack.

I did not find Lisette’s narrative voice at all convincing. As the only female protagonist, I imagined that her point of view would be written rather differently to the three male perspectives; however, this was not the case. I do not feel as though there was enough distinction between the different characters, and the initial interest which I held for each of them waned quite quickly. Each of the narrative voices also held a curious detachment, as though Klay did not want his readers to become overly absorbed in any of the individual stories.

The novel is advertised as a great choice for fans of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, which I very much enjoyed, and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, which I very much did not. I was keen to see whether Missionaries would appeal to me as a reader, but it sadly did not capture my attention at all.  I was never absorbed in the story, and largely felt quite indifferent to it, which is obviously not the author’s intention.  Whilst I am sure that Missionaries will find a large audience who admire it, it did not work for me on several levels as a reader.

Review by Kirsty Hewitt

ISBN-13 : 978-1838852313
Publisher : Canongate Books; Main Edition (29 Oct. 2020)