Natalie Hart, Pieces of Me
by Timon Rijntjes
'Trauma does funny things to a person's brain. Some people block out events completely, but for many the problem is that the memory becomes fragmented,' observes Emma as she interviews dozens of Iraqis in her Baghdad office. They have come to apply for American citizenship, and it is Emma's job to provide the Immigration Service with a detailed report on the interviewees' lives and backgrounds. Pieces of Me, Natalie Hart's debut novel, is, in a way, a literary record of Emma's own story. The novel is fragmented as the result of a series of distressing experiences, and can be considered a trauma novel as it deals extensively with the reciprocity between loss, memory and healing.
Baghdad's fortified International Zone becomes Emma's new home after the impromptu departure from her family in Britain, and her work provides her with a sense of purpose. Acknowledging that Baghdad, however, can only ever be a temporary home, she moves to Colorado with an American soldier, Adam, with whom she has fallen in love back in Iraq. Unfortunately for the newly-weds, Adam is soon to be redeployed, and Emma finds herself in the hollow role of military spouse.
While Baghdad, war-ridden but also familiar and exciting, is accessible again to her unreachable husband, Emma struggles to settle down in the alien town of Colorado Springs; Pieces of Me is first and foremost a novel about identity and belonging. In exploring these themes, Hart deploys a straightforward writing style whose depth is not found in the intricacy of language, but in the emotions it broaches and the images it conveys. From personal experience I can say that even those who pride themselves on a so-called immunity to this supposed sentimentality are not safeguarded from the occasional lump-in-throat sensation. This is not surprising given the multitude and vehemence of upsetting events Emma has to cope with. These tragic backstories provide a compelling contrast to Emma's rather boring life as a military spouse, which consists of visits to an art class, the mentoring of an Iraqi teenager, and the occasional mental breakdown. But on the other hand, the necessity of these subplots to maintain the reader's attention is indicative of a lack of character development in the midsection of the book.
Adam's character, on the contrary, drastically changes during his deployment as the result of a traumatic incident. When he finally returns home, shell-shocked, he takes Iraq with him. Pieces of Me is a firm reminder that war is not restricted by geographical boundaries and calendar dates. Hart's approach highlights that war is primarily a human affair, not a political one.
Long before Baghdad, Emma had started to collect pieces of glass and stone, reminders of places, people, and events, a habit she upholds throughout book. Inspired by her art class she attempts to unite them all in a mosaic. Up until the last page you are captivated to find out if any such unification will ever be achieved.