More Than a War Story

A ghostly narrator, an unfolding mystery, and an impossible choice drive Elliot Ackerman’s new novel about a wounded Marine and his wife
Elliot Ackerman
“Writing a novel is like standing in a field of really high, dry grass, banging two flints together and trying to make sparks,” Elliot Ackerman said. Photo: Huger Foote
October 17, 2018

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“I want you to understand Mary and what she did. But I don’t know if you will,” begins Waiting for Eden, a new novel by Elliot Ackerman, A03, F03, that was published late last month.

For his part, Ackerman certainly didn’t fully understand his characters’ lives when he began writing the book, narrated by an unnamed Marine who is killed in an explosion in Iraq. That same explosion transformed the Marine’s friend, Eden Malcolm, into “the most wounded man from both the wars”—and now his wife, Mary, must decide whether to take him off life support.

“I didn’t know what Mary did, or understand it myself. I began writing solely with the faith that I would understand her as a character,” said Ackerman, a former Marine whose previous books include Green on Blue and Dark at the Crossing, a National Book Award finalist. “The whole book was a surprise.”

A short novel written in plain prose, Waiting for Eden weaves Eden’s and Mary’s viewpoints as Eden comes out of a coma for the first time after his injury, mute and blind and in agony, and Mary arrives at his bedside with their young daughter, Andy. As each struggles with how to move forward, the ghostly narrator flashes back to his time with each of them on the military base they once called home.

“Writing a novel is like standing in a field of really high, dry grass, banging two flints together and trying to make sparks,” Ackerman said. “The flints are always something that has happened to me, and the grass is the story I’m trying to light on fire.”

From the sleep-deprived tedium and terror of the Marine Corps’ Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape training to the peeling paint and frequent Chinese takeout of barracks living, Ackerman’s own experiences are strongly present in the book, which was recently longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction.

“I went through that specific type of training used in the book, and I knew plenty of younger enlisted Marines who lived in the barracks,” Ackerman said. “I was able to bring that knowledge to some segments of the story.”

Those experiences provide a common ground for other characters, such as Gabe, a nurse and former Marine who manages to break through Eden’s silence via a tap code they learned in training. “It’s about what is and is not communicated, and how we’re able—despite great challenges—to communicate with each other,” Ackerman said.

Despite the rich details of military life, the tale is not so much a war story as about looking deeply into the human heart. Under the gaze of their watchful friend, Mary and Eden’s relationship is slowly revealed choice by painful choice, culminating in the book’s uplifting but ambiguous ending.

“Most of my characters are dealing with the challenges of what it means to love and to be faithful, to do the right thing in very challenging circumstances,” Ackerman said. “The moment we start loving someone, we relinquish some of our agency to them. All of us are constantly making ourselves vulnerable to other people—and where we bounce off each other is where good stories are told.”

Monica Jimenez can be reached at monica.jimenez@tufts.edu.