Book Review for Life During Wartime by Katie Rogin

(Winston-Salem, NC: Mastodon Publishing, 2018)

Katie Rogin is an award-winning writer with a diverse oeuvre. She has written for both television and film, including ABC’s One Life to Live, and a short film In A Blue Mood, which she also produced and directed. Rogin’s essays, fiction and criticism can be seen in publications including Vice’s TonicThe RumpusSports Illustrated, and The Chattahoochee Review. Now, she has added “novelist” to her résumé. 

Rogin’s debut novel, Life During Wartime, is a complex examination of the results of trauma, both mental and physical. The novel takes place in California in 2008. September 11 is still painfully fresh, U.S. troops are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the economy is teetering on the edge of financial crisis. The book considers wartime and its ramifications both literally and figuratively, and it shows how those involved in waging a literal war can be affected. Rogin’s characters are tough, and they show how surviving after trauma can be an act of courage or even sacrifice.

The website/blog Largehearted Boy is a place where authors create playlists of music that was important to them during the writing process. Each song has a brief synopsis of what makes it significant — some remind them of something a character might listen to, while others set a specific mood. They might even be a song that they imagine playing within the story itself. 

It is here that Rogin explains how the book’s title Life During Wartime comes from the Talking Heads’ song of the same name.  “[It’s a] dance song for the apocalypse … quite literally, what life is like in a war zone.” To elaborate, Rogin recalls her first few days as a New Yorker after 9/11, how people had to show their ID if they needed to go south of 14th Street. As Rogin lived on 12th, and her parents on 23rd, she had to pass through that border frequently. Even food deliveries to grocery stores and restaurants were curtailed, causing shortages in locations where there was restricted movement, which created an additional reason people had to pass through that 14th street border.

The book primarily follows three people, all imprisoned by their own trauma, but joined by the common goal of finding a missing person named Nina. An Iraq veteran, Nina is suffering from PTSD and has disappeared, and there is reason to believe she might try to take her own life. The search party consists of Nina’s uncle Jim who worked in finance in the World Trade Center and survived 9/11; Lise, a recently discharged army combat nurse and friend of Nina; and Jen, Nina’s landlady as well as a distant cousin who is working through trauma of her own from 9/11. 

Together, this unlikely crew tracks Nina around Los Angeles, through the hills of the Sierra Madre, and finally to the Palm Desert. The narrative cycles through each person as the search triggers memories and trauma they have all struggled to suppress, through drinking, restless moving, mindless sex, or simply “checking out.” The search also leads them into the path of a dangerous wildfire surging throughout the hills, displacing families and turning them into refugees in their own country. 

People are drawn together in times of fear and pain. Yes, we also draw together during times of joy, but then it is more deliberate. People have a choice. But when people are drawn together by pain, players are chosen by circumstance, strangers become comrades in a scene set by need or desire. There is little or no choice. People are called to the occasion whether they want to be or not. 

Borders also play an important role in the book. Sometimes it is literal, such as when a character moves from one physical space to another, intrudes on another’s physical space, or the voyeurism of writer Danny pressing the other characters for descriptions of the blood and guts of their past for the sake of making his screenplay more realistic. But, in spite of all these obstacles, our characters keep moving doggedly forward.

Life During Wartime is about damaged people, people burdened with the task of continuing to exist when the only experiences that drive them are death, destruction, and loss. These people come together trapped in their own trauma, but their shared goal of locating Nina allows them to temporarily overcome the demons that haunt them in order to find someone just as lost as they. 

The novel is reflective and meditative, deliberate in its depiction of people displaced by loss and fear, people stuck in a world where they must continue moving forward in spite of the trauma they have experienced. Life During Wartimeexplores the results of all this isolation and running away with sensitivity and nuance, and it is a book that will stay with you long after you read the final page. 

Read at The Literary Review

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