Sand Queen

Details from the 40 interviews Helen Benedict conducted for her nonfiction book The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq (2009) provide the gritty verisimilitude in her new novel, Sand Queen. Along with the specifics of how female soldiers manage to change clothes in a tent full of men or make it to the shower and back unmolested, Benedict adds two memorable characters: an army reservist named Kate Brady, who has been called up halfway through her sophomore year in college to serve at Camp Bucca (based on the real-life desert prison of the same name founded in 2003 in Southern Iraq), and Naema Jassim, a medical student and refugee from Baghdad, who is trying to keep her mother and grandmother calm after her father and brother are imprisoned at Bucca.

Kate embarks upon her tour of duty at Camp Bucca buffed up and determined to blend in as a soldier, though she is one of only three women in a platoon of 39. She slings around crude military lingo, endures 14-hour shifts on a sun-blasted surveillance platform and sticks a condom over her rifle to protect it from the desert "moondust" just like the guys. The problem is that many of Kate's American comrades, and most of the Iraqi prisoners, are incapable of paying more attention to her uniform than to the body inside it. The resulting sexual harassment wears on Kate's psyche, and drives the plot of Sand Queen.

Sand Queen is replete with authentic detail and brutal incident, but the novel is not a screed as much as a sober depiction of the realities of war for both military and civilian women. If Kate's narrative feels more complete, Naema's chapters provide a balancing perspective from the other side of the razor wire. Sand Queen's deeper resonances are achieved via a deft pairing of timelines and the fateful intersection of the two women's stories.

In Sand Queen, Benedict has crafted a fictional explanation for some of the lurid real-world headlines from the Iraqi occupation. She also gives the reader a convincing and affecting portrait of two resilient young women caught up in war. --Holloway McCandless

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