It’s nice to see Jodi Compton back again. I am especially fond of THE 37th HOUR, her debut novel, and it has been quite some time since she favored us with the sequel, SYMPATHY BETWEEN HUMANS. HAILEY’S WAR, her new work, takes her into somewhat of a different direction from those earlier novels, though the focus remains upon a strong, though flawed, female protagonist whose impulses and actions bring trouble upon herself.
Hailey Cain is a bike messenger in San Francisco who is either underemployed or overqualified for the job, depending on how you look at it. Cain’s backstory, delivered in dribs, drabs and dollops throughout the book, is a fascinating train wreck practically from the moment of her birth. She nonetheless was able to obtain a commission to West Point, only to be mustered out with just two months to go before graduating with the rank of lieutenant. Moving to Los Angeles, a tragic incident causes her to flee that city for the relative sedateness of San Francisco and anonymity of her bike messenger job.
Everything changes when an old friend calls her for what appears to be a fairly straightforward favor: transport a young Mexican woman from across the border to her home in a remote town in the Sierra Madre. The job is not as simple as it seems, however, and Cain soon finds herself in a situation beyond anything that she might have reasonably expected. Returning to California, she begins to slowly and methodically attempt to discover the “why” of what took place and the “who” behind it. The answers lead her to acquire some unexpected and unlikely allies, along with extremely dangerous enemies.
Cain may not have graduated from West Point --- and the reason for that remains a mystery until almost the very end of the novel --- but she certainly makes the most of the education she received there. While she is no super soldier, Cain obviously attended classes on the days when tactics were discussed, and this knowledge holds her in good stead, even when things seem to be at their worst. Cain is a strong protagonist, but is outmatched by her adversaries in a number of ways. Don’t expect her to walk away whole from the book’s ending. If at all.
HAILEY’S WAR is a book full of secrets sprinkled throughout the pages of the story like poisonous breadcrumbs. Some are revealing, while many are disturbing; all are overlaid with the fine twists of irony that occur more than once before the last page is turned. There are also a couple of ticking clocks that run throughout the novel, including one that is not revealed until the conclusion and that continues running even after the book is closed. Unfortunately, Compton’s work is under-appreciated at this point, but HAILEY’S WAR, which is perhaps a bit more accessible than her first two titles, will hopefully change that set of circumstances for the better.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011