The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen once said, “All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” One half of Pam Jones’s newest novel The Arizona Room (Spaceboy Books, 2023) takes place during the World War II; in the second half, its protagonist reconciles with her experience in old age. While we never find ourselves on the battlefields of Europe or the Pacific, Nguyen’s quote feels particularly applicable to Jones’s novel, which traces the story of April Nimitz, a German-American woman once interned during World War II, only to have her memories of incarceration haunt her long after her release.
Throughout The Arizona Room, April’s story is told in a dual timeline. In 1999 (the novel’s present day), April is recently widowed following the death of her husband, Juan. Her two daughters, Jenny and Paloma, have come to her home in Texas to bury their father and take April to live with them in Connecticut. The novel shifts back and forth between the ’90s and WWII-era United States, where April’s German-American family must wait out the war in a Texas internment camp and April meets and falls in love with Juan.
However, to summarize The Arizona Room as a mother/daughter road trip paired with a historical love story would be a massive oversimplification and disservice to the material. What makes this work so unique is Jones’s fearless approach to the story and her refusal to pull punches when the most shocking moments within the narrative arrive.
Early in the novel’s present day, minutes before April is to pile into her daughters’ car and say farewell to Texas forever, she settles a seemingly ancient score with an old neighbor by breaking into the woman’s house and attacking her. Whether or not April has managed to kill the neighbor not even April knows. At first, the motivation behind such a vicious act fueled by a seemingly petty feud is unclear. Was the attack provoked by the general irritability we’ve all felt with our neighbors at one point or another? Or is something deeper at play? As the novel progresses, Jones explores how a half century of boiling aggression can justify an attempted homicide.
In the timeline taking place in the internment camp, Jones portrays April and Juan’s falling in love against the backdrop of one of the most shameful moments of American history: when the U.S. government forcibly relocated and imprisoned anyone they deemed to be an “alien enemy” during World War II, frequently interning their families as well. While U.S. citizens of Japanese descent were the most common group targeted for internment, The Arizona Room tells the story of those of German descent who also suffered under the act.
However, this novel is not about how April and Juan’s young love makes the reality of internment bearable. Rather, the two join forces to prostitute underage girls in the camp so they can make ends meet. It’s a bold choice and Jones does not shy away from showing uncomfortable moments that are heartbreaking to read. However, these moments never feel gratuitous or sadistic. Jones is simply pointing out what desperate people did to survive.
Jones never casts judgment on her characters, though as we dig deeper into April’s past and her current situation before her move to Connecticut, it becomes clear that April has no shortage of judgment reserved for herself. She is constantly paranoid that her daughters want nothing to do with her, convinced they will abandon her on the roadside at a moment’s notice.
Like Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, his soul broken in two by the double murder he commits in the early chapters of Crime and Punishment, April is in constant distress in the aftermath of the violent act she commits against her neighbor. Indeed, tension pulsates throughout the novel, as it seems April’s journey could be cut short at any moment by law enforcement catching up with her, imprisoning her, and destroying whatever chance she has left to build a relationship with her daughters.
April frequently reassures herself, “We got away with it.” Though as the novel continues, what exactly she got away with takes on many meanings. The murder of her neighbor? The pimping out of underage girls? The circumstances surrounding her husband’s death? Even if the law doesn’t come for her, April’s preoccupation with her past begins to feel like punishment enough. In the back of her daughters’ car, April has nothing but time to evaluate and regret her life.
Despite the novel’s concise set-up, The Arizona Room offers no clean or tidy resolutions, nor does it mean to. This decision feels appropriate—providing an honest resolution to a war that continues to be fought in the character’s memory would be too tidy an ending. But what The Arizona Room does not deliver in plot, it makes up for in the character study of a woman filled with regrets at the end of her life.
Jones’s prose brims with asides, flashbacks, musings, and memories of anecdotes long past. The writing is lyrical and sophisticated while always maintaining clarity. As a result, The Arizona Room is a powerful new entry in the genre of character-driven literary fiction. Through our understanding of April, which deepens throughout the novel, it becomes clear that although she and Juan ended their time in the internment camp long ago, the war will forever be fought in their minds.