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'Waiting for Eden' is a devastating story about loving and letting go

a devil's bookshelf

4/5 Blue Devils 

There are some books that beg to be finished in one day: they pull you in with heroic characters and moving stories and transport you to a world that is foreign but familiar. Elliot Ackerman’s “Waiting for Eden,” published in 2018, is exactly one of these novels. The quasi-pocket-sized book presents a cover that speaks volumes: two faces are pressed against each other, with a man’s eye staring intently ahead and a woman’s lips pressed against his left temple. The faces create an abstract image, almost as if one’s features morph into the other. Their individuality is indistinguishable until the novel begins. 

In “Waiting for Eden,” the reader is immediately forewarned that the story is one of devastation. An omniscient narrator, whom we learn is much more intimately involved, guides us through Eden’s tragic tale.

Three years prior to the start of the novel, Eden and the narrator have been deployed to Iraq for a second time. After an initial deployment and a child on the way, Eden's time of crisis is behind him and a promising future with his wife, Mary awaits. Although he is in a relatively comfortable position, he sacrifices this stability to fight for his country in Iraq. 

There, a military truck unknowingly hits a pressure plate, immediately killing all nearby soldiers. The single soldier who lived was Eden, whose survival is deemed a miracle. The injuries he suffered are almost too numerous to name: “thirty percent reduction in frontal lobe activity, fifty percent reduction in parietal lobe activity, contusions throughout.” The reader suddenly encounters Eden in this extremely dependent state, reliant on life support to connect to the world. 

Further specificities of Eden’s pre-war life unravel before the reader, a contrast that amplifies just how tragic this explosion was. Ackerman tells us how Eden first met his wife Mary, their plans to have a child, his time in intense and impressive military training and much more of his vibrant existence before disaster. There are even comical references to Eden’s dynamic and energetic prior self. Throughout the novel, these insights shape an identity suspended in time.

It is almost impossible to imagine Eden as this carefree character. The painfully mundane routine Eden experiences in the San Antonio burn center drags on with only occasional signs of promise, unlike the free spirited life he once lived. As a result, he misses many important moments after the collision, including the birth of his daughter Andy. This is particularly painful given the couple's long term infertility struggles.

The book also underscores a theme that is all too common, no matter our personal tragedies: loneliness. When I reflect on Eden’s loved ones, only Mary fully experiences this drastic, immediate change of the man she loves. The indiscernible image between the two figures on the cover is much more meaningful when we recognize just how difficult it is for Mary and Eden to communicate. She is whispering to Eden, trying to reach someone she once connected with deeply. This suffering is inherently connected to loneliness, both of Eden being alone in his active mind and Mary alone in her attempt at connection. The loneliness felt in this novel springs from a disturbing loss, no matter who experiences it.

In “Waiting for Eden,” the reader observes the difficult complexities of humanity. For example, Mary experiences guilt when she feels that peace for them both would mean Eden’s death. Mary’s hope for Eden’s peace is derived from a place of profound care, but the thought of not seeing him in his hospital bed is too much to bear. She must weigh two tragedies at once: losing Eden in the world as she knows him, or continuously losing herself as she cares for him. Neither is the immediate, appropriate or obvious choice, and her decisions ask us to reconcile with our own values of love and peace. 

The reason for my 4/5 rating is partially due to the way in which the omniscient narrator becomes woven into the actual plot and partially due to the abrupt ending. By the end, I became attached to the few characters in the novel. Ackerman selectively introduces them and maintains a focus on how they shape the novel and their relationships with each other. Because of this connection, the ending seemed to arrive too abruptly. In the end, there is a sudden realization that allows for the inconsistencies in the novel to align in an almost unbelievable and impractical way, as much as I wanted to be satisfied with it. 

Still, Ackerman skillfully balances unvarnished questions and concepts about human nature for much of the novel that make the read important regardless of your expectations. 

Bates Crawford is a Trinity junior. Her book column, “A Devil’s Bookshelf,” runs bimonthly and she rates books on a 0-5 Blue Devil scale. Bates recommends books to her fellow students when (or if) they have spare time in their busy Duke lives.

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