“But now it’s more for me, to keep track of all these days, to make me remember them. Maybe I can figure things out later that I can’t understand now.” She slipped the diary back in her bag. “In the end, that’s really all there is to life, right? What you remember? And what other people remember? The forgotten moments are totally gone, no matter how good or important they might have been.”
The Confusion of Languages is the knitting together and unraveling of a friendship between two women. There’s Cassie, a military wife who has lived in Jordan for years, ready to take Margaret under her wing, and Margaret, new to marriage, to motherhood, and to the Middle East, valuing kindness over custom.
The book opens with a car accident, a mother disappearing, a friendship spiraling out of control. Fallon tells her tale in in alternating chapters between Cassie in real time and Margaret’s diary (as Cassie begins to read it), allowing the reader to see how the friendship was stitched together and how it was torn apart—two stitches forward, one stitch ripped back.
Finding the Book and Coming Up With a Rating
I picked up The Confusion of Languages because Anne Bogel recommended it on her summer reading list and it took me this long to come up on the library hold list. The summer reading list was a bit more hit-and-miss for me than I expected, with The Confusion of Languages being a bit of a let down initially. One book on the list drove me crazy (The Lost Book of the Grail) and one was okay but a bit unexpectedly fluffy (A Bridge Across the Ocean). Some were absolute home runs (The Fall of Lisa Bellow, Anything is Possible, The Almost Sisters, Beartown, The Hate U Give, Dreamland Burning). I wanted The Confusion of Languages to be a homerun for me but it just wasn’t. To be fair to Fallon, it was likely the bit of the slump I was in colored my feelings toward the book—I probably needed something that was less of a slow, simmer and more of an immediately-boiling-book last week.
On top of this, one of the characters is absolutely abhorrent and she is making it difficult for me to fairly rate the book. On the one hand, I despise her so much I want to rate the book low because of her centrality to the narrative. On the other, I’m certain that I’m supposed to have a visceral negative reaction to her and the fact that I did find her so unsettling is a credit to Fallon as a writer—I am feeling what she wants me to feel. My immediate reaction was to rate it three stars, but as I get a few days’ distance from it, I can see the power of Fallon’s writing, how she sucked me in and made me love/hate characters despite myself. Like Lincoln in the Bardo, distance is making me recognize the power of the writing.
Fallon does an excellent job at making her characters well-rounded. Cassie is recognizable as someone we’ve all met—deeply flawed but real. Margaret through Cassie’s eyes is flighty; yet, through Margaret’s diary we see the value she placed on kindness—particularly kindness over custom. This emphasis on kindness and how it plays out with friendships and actions towards the Middle Eastern men around her ultimately brings her trouble. You know it’s coming but Fallon allows you to hope that it won’t—that Margaret’s naïve believe in kindness can, in fact, win over everyone. That it is the value that can trump all others.
And yet, this was not kindness developed in a vacuum. Through telling her story of how she met her husband Crick and became pregnant, and life before Crick, Margaret reveals her innocence, how deeply she was sheltered. You see how Margaret came to believe in kindness-over-all and the blindspots her background gave her. It was refreshing to see this value on kindness and, even with the way Margaret’s kindness causes the events in The Confusion of Languages to play out, I was still left with the sense that kindness is still mostly worth it. That the risk of being kind is still worth taking.
While the central relationship in the book is Cassie’s and Margaret’s friendship, each woman is in Jordan because she’s a trailing spouse of a military man. Margaret’s husband Crick is more fleshed out, mostly because he also interacts with Cassie, so stories of him are told by both women. He is a bit one-dimensional—walking machismo with the tiniest vein of tenderness and doubt that only Margaret got to see until the very end. He is the foil against which each woman reveals her own character, the brick wall for Margaret’s ivy tendrils and Cassie’s choking garden weeds. In contrast, Cassie’s own husband, Dan, is barely mentioned. We experience him almost solely through Cassie’s discussions of how he “unfairly” doesn’t trust her, how their infertility has become a cloud of judgment over her. This seemed to me a missed opportunity for Fallon. As portrayed, he is rather longsuffering and I do not for the life of me understand why he stayed with Cassie unless he was a bit of an emotional masochist. Having him be more fleshed out would answer so questions as to his own motivations and what the hell is going on with him and Cassie, since his staying seems so beyond anything I really understand.
Fallon’s style clearly delineated between Cassie’s current telling of the tale to the reader-audience and Margaret’s voice in her journal, intended solely for herself. Margaret’s unself-conscious writing was often briefly lovely—for example, when she told the story of her doorman giving her child chocolate intended as a welcoming gift but it was so old as to have gone grey. The baby spits it out and Margaret goes back in the dark to find the sliver of chocolate so that the doorman would not “find the spat-out gift and hav[e] to get down on hands and knees to clean up his own kindness.”
The two different focuses—Cassie to the audience and Margaret to herself—aided the story, enabling the reader to see Margaret as she was/saw herself as opposed to how only Cassie saw her—a detail that becomes important as the book progresses, since Cassie is slowly revealed to be a less than honest reporter of the people and actions around her.
There were no hiccups in the writing—nothing that made me cringe or roll my eyes. Here too the writing was tight, a credit to Fallon and her editor.
Having had a few days distance from my gut reaction towards this book, I think it’s a solid almost-four. A three and three quarters. Fallons writing is heads and shoulders above many and the book was engaging with three dimensional characters that pulled you in despite yourself. It is a slow burn, more suited for a long, cold night by the fire than a summer day by the beach, even if the setting is warmer climes.
Published June 27, 2017 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons (@putnambooks)
Author: Siobhan Fallon
Date read: November 11, 2017
Rating: 3 ¾ stars
Tw: suicide, gaslighting