Eli is adrift. After suffering significant injuries in the military, he is struggling to find his new purpose. He’s only ever been a solider and now that part of himself is gone, or so he believes. Therapy isn’t helping and most days it’s all Eli can do to get himself to the local diner for breakfast. One morning, Eli sees a homeless man with a small dog. He gives the man a biscuit and a dollar and can’t help hoping the pair will be okay.
Ben isn’t homeless. He’s an incredibly successful artist, currently working on a commission in the Cabbagetown district of Atlanta. But Eli’s act of kindness strikes a chord in Ben as the two get to know one another. Ben is essentially a man without a home. He travels from job to job, rarely thinking about the family who cast him out for being gay. Yet Eli offers a new kind of home and falling in love comes naturally. And with Ben at his side, Eli discovers he’s still a warrior and that starting over isn’t always a bad thing.
War Paint was a roller coaster of the sweet, the sad, and the profound, and all of in equal measure. The author has done a masterful job of packing a lot of punch into just a few pages. This was a quick read and it’s almost over before you realize it. I think it ends a bit too abruptly, but the entire work has a clipped, almost brusque tone and the writing mirrors this. That isn’t a complaint, as it makes for an interesting experience and definitely feels unique among other stories. There is no great romance here; instead, it’s a story about two men who just fit. They meet and they seem to suit one another at nearly every level. So it seems like the romance period is bypassed and instead they’re a couple who’ve already achieved the comfortable warmth of an established relationship. I’m not sure how believable that really is, but it manages to works for Ben and Eli.
In the midst of trying to find his new sense of self, Eli begins to explore photography. His first major project idea is to photograph veterans in historical war paints. It’s a powerful theme and one that runs as an undercurrent beneath the story. Eli says:
“Maybe I’m wrong about it. But the war paint, that’s protection. And ritual. Like, it’s what you do before you go into battle. You summon up the spirits to protect you. The Maasai, they danced before battle, danced in their paint, so they could summon the ancestors to help them. It’s like your anchor and shield, you know? It’s what ties you to a place or a group or something.”
This isn’t a new concept of course, but it is a weighty one, especially when seen in the context of veterans and the struggles of going to war and of coming home. But it really hit home for me because I realized this is how I feel about my tattoos. They aren’t visible to the rest of the world because they’re for me and me alone. But I do draw strength from them and it’s a deeply personal thing. Because of this, Eli’s exploration of war paint and photograph helped me connect to this book in a huge way.
War Paint is an excellent book with a shocking amount of depth for its small size. It’s written in a somewhat staccato style that some might not enjoy, but that works well as a whole. The characters and their journey are layered, yet accessible, and I’d recommend this one to nearly everyone!
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.