“You become friends with someone you wouldn’t be able to stand if you actually had options.”
Siobhan Fallon’s richly textured novel The Confusion of Languages is set during 2011 in the American ex-pat community of the US embassy in Jordan. The story centres on the relationship between two of the wives, Cassandra Hugo and Margaret Brickshaw, both married to career military men, and both, due to their roles in a foreign country, shoved into an ill-fitting friendship. The novel examines conflicts between vastly contrasting cultures, the treacherous friendships between women, and the chasms between husbands and wives.
When the novel opens, Margaret Brickshaw has left her toddler, Mather, in the care of Cassandra Hugo in order to attend to the aftermath of a traffic accident. But as the hours tick away, and there’s no word from Margaret, Cassandra, bored and annoyed that she’s stranded with the baby, turns to Margaret’s journal, and there she learns some unpleasant truths about herself and possible clues to Margaret’s extended absence.
Cassandra and her husband, Dan, have already been in Jordan for a couple of years when Dan signs up to sponsor newcomers Margaret and Crick Brickshaw. Margaret, mother of a young baby, is new to military life. She doesn’t ‘get’ the rules of contact with locals, and her desire to see the ‘real’ Jordan and to be friendly infuriates Cassandra, but then again, Cassandra is annoyed with Margaret before she sets eyes on her. Margaret’s apartment is much better, but that’s not all, Margaret “blond and Brahmin thin” has “the sort of body that denotes an entire class system in America, its own regal title regardless of bank account or upbringing, Mayflower ancestors or cabbage soup diet. As long as the thinness comes with a decent set of teeth, the bearer of such luck has it made.” Plus Margaret has a sexually-charged husband and the child that Cassandra is unable to conceive. To Cassandra, Margaret “had it all,”
All this because biology favored the Brickshaws with a child. As if that’s fair. As if lucking out and being able to conceive isn’t enough, then the US government gives you extra bedrooms to pat your propagation of the species on the back
Cassandra is a tricky character. She does things that no one can actually point to as meanness or sabotage, but her actions have that result nonetheless. Cassandra had another friend before, Rebecca Eisenberg, and while Cassandra says she was just being “helpful” setting up Google alerts to be sent to Rebecca about violence in the region, what was she really playing at? We first see Margaret through Cassandra’s eyes, and Margaret seems possibly, subtly bitchy, and yet when we read Margaret’s words through her journal, we see a very troubled naive young woman who feels guilt about her mother and is unsure of her husband’s love. Beyond that, we also see the country through Margaret’s eyes: Children “trying to sell eggs, eggs! arranged in a little pyramid on a handkerchief.”
We passed a park and I saw two girls swinging, hijabs fluttering over their heads, sneakered feet kicking at the the sky.
Crick and especially Dan remain mostly in the background here, but there are scenes that take place between husbands and wives that illustrate the sex divide. In one scene for example, Crick carelessly knocks papers off the bed without a thought that his wife will be the one who picks them up, and while Margaret acknowledges that “men rule the world,” (at least they do in the world of women married to career military men) she chafes against that. Of course, there’s a time when the men deploy. …
While a sense of impending tragedy gathers like a storm cloud on the horizon, the plot concentrates on the relationship between Cassandra and Margaret and their relationship to the local population. Cassandra follows the embassy guidelines to a fault, but she also holds any of the local help at arm’s length, occasionally dipping into abuse if she feels that they are slacking or becoming too familiar. Meanwhile Margaret “a force of minor collisions, setting off small earthquakes, never thinking about what her tremors might rearrange or crack,” stops at all the street vendors buying “things she doesn’t need.” When “fallen women and widows” pass from car window to car window begging, Margaret throws money:
Margaret in her breathable, no -wrinkle cotton-blouses, her three-hundred-dollar car seat in the back. Can’t she feel how much they hate her?
Margaret doesn’t recognize that the line between us and them is real. She’s infected with our great American hubris of assuming that deep down every single person wants the same thing: autonomy, freedom, democracy, independence. I try to tell Margaret things here are different, that our American tolerance, even veneration, of the rule-breaker is not shared in a place where the literal translation of the name of the faith, Islam, means ‘submission.’
Margaret is open to friendships with Jordanians, but is this appropriate? Does her attitude, openness and naivete make her a better human being or a foolish one?
Years ago, I worked with someone who firmly believed that while most of us are too ‘small’ and insignificant to make a difference in the world, we can bring about change in our little corner of the planet. That question of making a difference in the world stayed with me throughout the book as I read about Margaret. Cassandra knows that no good can come from Margaret’s attempts to battle the culture–an idea Edith Wharton also explored in The Age of Innocence. Here’s an example: Margaret feeds the stray cats in her neighbourhood, but ultimately does she help the cats? To twist that question even further, what would ignoring the cats say about what kind of human being Margaret is? Ultimately does Margaret make her ‘corner’ a better place? We know we should adjust our behaviour depending on where we live, should we also adjust our morality according to location? Those questions stay with me after turning the last page.
Unusual, insightful and thoughtful, The Confusion of Languages will make my best-of year list.