Spoils by Brian van Reet review – engrossing Iraq war drama

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A former soldier’s debut novel exploits the conflict’s rich reserves of pathos and dread

A visceral hostage drama set during the 2003 war on Iraq, this debut novel alternates between the perspective of 19-year-old Cassandra, a gay female recruit to the US army, and that of middle-aged Abu al-Hool, an Egyptian jihadi whose memories of fighting the Russians in Afghanistan and Chechnya make him an increasingly reluctant fundamentalist. As their stories collide, Van Reet (a Texan who himself served in Iraq) can’t always prevent a certain staginess seeping in, courtesy of some excessively dutiful glosses of military jargon, while the pathos and dread of the scenario are ratcheted up by a narrative structure that keeps us one step ahead of the characters. Yet Spoils is undeniably engrossing all the same – and smart, too, embedding in its structure a sharp appraisal of the conflict, as Van Reet’s panoptic toggling between rival groups of foreign invaders pointedly leaves no room for any Iraqi point of view.

Spoils by Brian Van Reet is published by Jonathan Cape (£12.99). To order a copy for £9.74, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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