Review published on May 16, 2017.
This is a great novel written by a former US Army tank crewman. There are three main characters, Sleed a tank crewman (like the author himself), a female soldier Specialist Cassandra Wigheard, and a jihadi named Abu al-Hool. Cassandra is escaping a life of poverty and she stoically endures the macho sexism that characterises army life – the patronising chivalry of her immediate superior, the brutish misogyny of a fellow crewmate. She’s better than many of her colleagues but must work twice as hard to prove it. Sleed is a typical grunt trying to get by. Surrounded by thuggish colleagues he tries to fit in, but there’s a decency about him that his immediate comrades lack. Abu al-Hool is a veteran jihadi whose exploits date back to the Afghan jihad against the Soviets. He’s increasingly disillusioned by his life and has recently been usurped as leader of his band of fighters.
Dr Walid, the new leader of al-Hool’s jihadi band, has brought them to Iraq. For weeks, they sit around doing nothing but shooting propaganda videos, Walid clearly seeing himself as a proto-Zaqawi. But then they get wind of an American position and attack. In the ensuing firefight, Cassandra Wigheard and two other Americans are captured. The Quick Reaction Force that would, potentially, have rescued them is delayed, thanks to Sleed and his colleagues being away from their posts: they were searching one of Saddam’s palaces for booty.
The rest of the novel is focused on Wigheard’s captivity and, to a lesser extent, the American forces’ hunt for her. Wigheard really is a great creation, a character the author brings to life with a deftness of touch. The jihadis are also brilliantly portrayed. While some are the brutal psychopaths we might expect from the news media, most are portrayed as ordinary human beings, whose motivations for taking up arms against what they perceive to be foreign invaders in Muslim lands are numerous and complex. One striking aspect of the novel is how the author portrays their reaction to having captured a female soldier. As products of conservative Islam, they are equal parts fascinated and repelled by this blonde-haired example of the opposite sex. When she has her period their behaviour would border on the comical if it weren’t for the circumstances.
If I have one minor criticism of Spoils it’s that I’m not sure that the character of Sleed adds much to the narrative. It’s not that he’s a poorly constructed character, he isn’t, his characterisation is equally strong. But one could imagine the novel with his sections edited out and the book wouldn’t necessarily be any the weaker for it. Perhaps the author should have told the story just from Wigheard and the jihadists point of view and saved Sleed for another book.
Certainly, I hope this isn’t the last we hear from Brian Van Reet; he’s an author I would like to read more from. If Spoils is anything to go by, he’s a special talent.
James Pierson 5/5
Spoils by Brian Van Reet
Jonathan Cape 9781910702963 hbk May 2017