A surreptitiously weird book, “The Sandbox” follows the story of Toby Durrant, soldier and screw-up, who ends up in something way over his head while deployed in Iraq.
The weirdness begins when Durrant’s convoy comes across the body of a little girl lying in the road. When they stop to investigate, they come under attack, setting off a chain of events that lead Durrant into an abandoned factory where he sees what he thinks is a feral child, but everyone else assures him is a figment of his imagination. But this causes him to stumble onto a secret that his superiors desperately want to keep from him.
“The Sandbox” is a hybrid book, part war story, part mystery, part literary fiction with hints of magic realism. Although it is grounded in Durrant’s day-to-day experiences, which are mostly about being hungry, dirty, and horny (FYI: like a lot of American war novels, bad language and porn feature heavily, so don’t read if you’re easily offended by that kind of thing), it keeps veering off into other, more mysterious or even metaphysical territory, raising more questions than it answers. Stylistically, it combines the grit of the modern war story with a polish that smacks strongly of the MFA, a particular genre that either appeals to you or it doesn’t. In any case, it is good to see the Iraq war being given the literary fiction treatment.
Durrant himself is sort of sympathetic–but, like many characters in this kind of literary fiction, only sort of. He’s a serial screw-up whose relationships are largely selfish, something that he is somewhat aware of and even takes tiny steps to overcome, but again, much is left unresolved and it’s hard to say how successful he is. He is the epitome of the modern war hero: disaffected, cynical, self-centered, and full of doubts about his life, his war, and the part he is playing in it. “The Sandbox” is not a grand, sweeping narrative or a feel-good story of heroism, but the slightly off-center story of the very personal nature of war.