Phil Klay, who gave us the National Book Award-winning collection of short stories Redeployment, follows up with his first novel, Missionaries, about America’s unofficial war on Colombian guerillas, militias and drug cartels.
The novel, staggering in scope, follows four lead characters. Mason is a U.S. Army Special Forces operative turned liaison to the Colombian military who’s looking for a sense of purpose after serving long deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lisette is a foreign war journalist who has spent years covering the down and dirty horrors on the streets of Kabul and elsewhere. Juan Pablo, Mason’s attaché in Colombia, laments his role as mercenary. And Abel, a lieutenant in the Los Mil Jesus militia, saw his family butchered as a child but somehow managed to survive to take up his own position of power.
Before launching them on their eventual collision course, Klay introduces the foursome in alternating chapters over the first half of the book, diving years into the past as each character reflects on their lot in life. None of them really chose their path, but each is resigned to accept it one way or another. Even when they have a chance to walk away from it—to start fresh, as with Mason and Lisette—they are seemingly incapable of living a quieter, safer life.
Klay’s vividly descriptive yet lyrical prose keeps their stories interesting, though the novel is at its best when events cascade into occasional bursts of graphic violence. Klay, an Iraq War veteran, progressively ratchets up the unease throughout, which serves as a cautious warning of more intense violence to come.
Missionaries offers a starkly realistic view of a war-torn region only hinted at on the nightly news that, at times, makes Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s troubles pale by comparison. At the same time, the novel provides a powerful glimpse of the psychological toll of war and a close look at people’s desperate attempts to find their place amid utter chaos.