Review: Sand Queen, Helen Benedict

What a powerful book! Also somewhat depressing, so definitely not something to read if you’re in the mood for something light. Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen tells the stories of nineteen-year-old American soldier Kate Brady and Iraqi medical student Naema Jassim in Iraq in 2003. I don’t usually enjoy war novels, so I wasn’t sure how much I’d like this one, but I quickly found myself engrossed in the tales of both women.

Kate is assigned to an American prison in Iraq, where Naema’s father and thirteen-year-old brother have been unjustly detained. The first thing that struck me about this novel is the less than heroic portrayal of the American military. Seen through Naema’s eyes, American soldiers are bullies, much less brutal than Saddam’s soldiers, but still picking on innocent Iraqis like her brother. I like how Benedict shows this, and also shows the other side’s perspective. For example, Kate notices how the Iraqi prisoners are actually getting better food and accommodations than the American soldiers.

I like the scene where Naema tells Kate that she’s a medical student, and Kate admits she thought Iraqi girls “weren’t allowed to do anything except get married.” “Do you know nothing of my country?” Naema asks, and they chat a bit about their families.  I love that bit of cross-cultural interaction, and the idea that, even in the very midst of the war, an American and an Iraqi can discover common ground and become friends.

Naema’s story started out emotionally gripping. We see her enjoying a quiet dinner with her family, her father and brother being arrested, and her outrage and desperation in trying to find out about them. However, I found Kate’s story much more engrossing, and shortly after Naema and Kate’s initial interactions, I found myself skimming over the Naema chapters.

Kate’s story is just very disturbing. As a young, female soldier, she routinely gets harassed by her fellow soldiers and by prisoners. In Sand Queen, Benedict uses the real life stories of female soldiers in Iraq that she had researched for her earlier, non-fiction book The Lonely Solder: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, and perhaps it’s because of this source material that Sand Queen ends up feeling much more like Kate’s story than like Kate and Naema’s stories.

The level of harassment and sexism that Kate and her fellow female soldiers face is horrific, and it was difficult but felt utterly real, to see her turn from a somewhat innocent girl just trying to do her job to a rage-filled, hurting woman capable of kicking a bound man and grinding his face into the ground. We see glimpses of Kate’s life after the war, and we understand how she got there — after all she’s been through, who wouldn’t be broken? There’s a sweet romance with a fellow soldier who tries to protect her from a rapist, and I was cheering on that romance all the way. With so much horror everywhere else, that friendship and developing love stood out as the potential for hope.

Sand Queen is a powerful and, quite frankly, depressing novel. It’s wonderfully written; even with such heavy subject matter, the story moves really quickly. It’s an eye opener, both to the lives of Iraqis during the war and to the experiences of female soldiers. Not a breezy read, but definitely worth reading.

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