Elliott Ackerman is returning to the Nantucket Book Festival with Waiting for Eden, his latest novel. In 2017, his powerful conversation around Dark At the Crossing moved all of us, hence, the anticipation of his return is high!
Ackerman’s latest work is a moving book about big issues - war, loyalty, love. And it is also about personal choice and free will on several levels.
Like most of us, I believe I am in control of my life, working hard to make my own choices, setting my career and personal goals with details on how I daily spend my free time - even when I read, for how long. I am not a ‘can’t put it downer’. But Waiting for Eden overrode my self-control and without warning pulled me deeply into the lives of Eden and Mary Malcolm and Eden’s fellow Iraqi War comrade, the nameless narrator of the novella. I could not stop reading. The deep and lasting pain that war inflicts on those intimately or tangentially impacted was palpable. Life did not go their way by any means; they were all victims of the Iraq War. As a result, no one was free to make independent choices. Eden, unable to speak, is tormented because he cannot effectuate his choice for his life. His wife is paralyzed by too many bad choices. And the narrator regrets decisions he made while alive. For those dear victims of war, the novella examines the intense conflict of trying one’s best to make decisions for themselves, their daughter, their patient, or best friend’s wife under the worst of circumstances.
Turning the pages of Waiting for Eden was heart wrenching and painful, but I had to keep reading. As the three characters waited for Eden to either recover or die, the narrator recalls details about Eden’s life, his goals and the hopes of the young married couple. Eden was the only soldier to survive a Humvee explosion that killed his best friend, the narrator, in Iraq. Burned and amputated, he won the tragic designation as the military’s most wounded warrior. This superbly written book yanked me right alongside Eden’s bed, sitting next to Mary, his wife and constant hospital visitor, conflicted and so sad. She will not leave his side. She is inextricably linked to her husband both physically and mentally. She waits– trying to decide if death will be better than his current existence. Is her broken life good enough for herself and her family? I expected clarity, something big to happen, a Christmas Eve breakthrough in his thinking, but no. Feeling a real intimacy with the three, their grief and the intensity of their connections reminded me of the depths of relationships, human suffering and endurance. I mourned for them all.
I finished the 173-page book in no time, feeling very sad. The cost of war, the searing pain from its human toll and the almost impossible decisions required of loving family members confronted me starkly. Yes, and ‘love’. Love weaves itself in and out of perfectly sweet experiences of their earlier lives and then through really tough situations, like this one. How tight a hold does love have on our rational decision-making? How does one define marital fidelity?
They wait in the darkness of Eden’s hospital room night after night. The machines he is hooked up to make the same sounds night after night. Eden’s nightmares are the same night after night. It felt like sitting interminably in the middle of a deep, dark, abandoned tunnel. The toll of war is immeasurable, yet day after day its victims endure the pain yet again. I appreciated Ackerman taking me to the post battlefield scenes which are so easy to forget, where the real wounds of war are endured by so many.