The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien

things-they-carried “It wasn’t a war story. It was a love story.” – pg 85

I’m sitting at my computer trying to write a review for The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien while my family noisily watches the Eagles game. I have no idea who is winning or losing because they make essentially the same noises in both situations, but that’s not the point. The point is I’m not sure how to start this and I’m stalling. It might be because this is my first full-fledged review and I’m nervous. But I think it’s more along the lines of this-book-blew-me-away. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it definitely was not what I got.

It is difficult to classify The Things They Carried. In many ways it was a collection of short stories. But every story was connected by the same characters and followed most of those characters through the war and afterward. I wish I had my copy of the book with me because I marked almost every other page with quotes I liked or thought were important or wanted to share here in this review. In a few short stories, and only a few pages, O’Brien managed to pack more into a few sentences than many authors manage in a few hundred.

One of the most fascinating things about O’Brien’s story was his own reflection on the art of telling a story, and specifically, the art of telling a war story. We are continuously reminded that the story is fiction, but it is difficult to separate Tim the narrator and Tim O’Brien the author. We are made aware that the narrator is unreliable, that he is telling us lies, that he is filling in the fantastic with the mundane to make it all “more believable.” “It’s safe to say,” the narrator tells the reader, “that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true.” This is from the section “How to Tell A War Story,” probably one of my favorite parts. It was a strange feeling; as soon as you began to trust the narrator and to believe that it was all true, he shook you out of it with a reminder of how untrue it all is. I imagine, with no real world understanding of this in any sense, that O’Brien did what he could to make the absurdity and the ludicrousness of war come through.

At times, O’Brien is graphic and crude. But it never feels out of place or unnecessary, in fact it would feel unrealistic and trite if it were not included. In one section, the narrator relates the story of the man he killed.  Over the three or so pages of the section, the narrator describes over and over again, often in the same exact words repeated, what the corpse looks like.  It was one of the most haunting things I have ever read.  The next story is about telling his daughter that “of course” he had never killed anyone.  In that way, The Things They Carried is a novel.  The stories could theoretically stand on their own, but they would lose something if they did.  The stories depend on each other the way soldiers do.  O’Brien is a master at his craft, weaving a tale that crosses through the “stories” and continues to the end. It truly is a love story, a love story to the men he fought beside. It’s a love story to the man he was and the man war made him. A war story is never about the war, it’s about the people who fought it, and O’Brien makes this perfectly clear. Go out and read this book.


Also blogged at:

Eye to eye

Trish’s Book Blog

Let me know if you’ve also reviewed The Things They Carried so I can link to you!

10 thoughts on “The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien

  1. A wonderful first review of a great book! It is unforgettable and scenes still pass through my mind at unexpected moments. I loved this book and I have another other of his on the TBR pile for January. I’m anxious to get to it!


  2. Great review! This book has been on my TBR list for quite sometime. You have convinced me that I need to move it up in priority (Musicophilia is of interest to me as well — I look forward to reading your review of that one).

    I also wanted to say thank you for the encouraging comment you posted on my blog — I greatly appreciate it. It is nice to meet you as well 🙂

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