RUNNING WITH WORDS
A former British army officer disabled by war has found a new vocation as a novelist
Harry Parker lost both legs in Afghanistan but amid the pain and chaos he uncovered a rich and unique voice.
It soars in Parker’s stunning debut novel, which looks at war and its consequences in ways that are confronting, compelling and cathartic. Edna O’Brien, the doyenne of Irish literature, has called Anatomy of a Soldier a “brilliant book, direct from the battle zone, where all the paraphernalia of slaughter is deployed’’.
Award-winning British/Pakistani novelist Nadeem Aslam calls Parker’s novel “a tour de force ... brilliant and beguiling’’ with pages that are “dangerous but which contain compassion and sorrow too’’.
From his home in London’s south, Parker, 32, a former British army officer now in command of a budding literary career, tells Qweekend he’s a bit embarrassed by the attention his book has generated and is just happy that it has resonated with so many people.
“It’s all been a bit crazy really,’’ he says. “I didn’t want to write a soldier’s memoir and I felt that a novel gave me greater freedom to write from different perspectives.’’
The boyishly handsome and affable young father really didn’t know what to expect after conceiving the novel during his rehabilitation process and afterwards devoting 12 frantic weeks, high on adrenaline and caffeine, writing the bulk of his confronting tale in public libraries, coffee shops and art galleries.
“I wrote a lot of it at the Tate Modern gallery. The coffee’s very expensive there, but it’s also very good.’’
The writing is also very good, a bold new way of looking at the war novel by a man who has felt the full impact of battlefield horror and is able to portray it with the detachment of an out-of-body experience.
Anatomy of a Soldier recounts the tribulations of its hero, British army captain Tom Barnes, from the moment he steps on an improvised explosive device in an unnamed conflict in an unnamed land.
Parker draws heavily on his experiences in war zones, trauma units and rehabilitation clinics. After serving in Iraq, Parker stepped on a mine while leading a group of 50 soldiers through an Afghan field in 2009.
Like Parker, Barnes loses one leg to the blast and one to infection, but the story of his character’s fight for survival and his struggles to adjust to a new life is told through 45 narrators, inanimate objects, among them the tourniquet used to stem his bleeding, a bike, dog tags, a bag of fertiliser, a $100 bill given to an Afghan man as compensation for his dead son and the electric hospital saw that cuts through Tom Barnes’s mangled, dead limb.
A tube inserted into Tom is one of the narrators and it describes what Tom looks like on the operating table: “Your left little finger hung by a sinew. Your groin had a clean shining wound that oozed blood. A testicle hung open, deformed and alien.”
Amid the horror of the whole awful business of war, though, is a story of hope; of a man getting on with his life and rebuilding himself.
Parker says there was an element of catharsis in the writing but concedes some passages also opened old wounds. The chapter in which Tom breaks down at the realisation of his injuries is particularly poignant and gruelling.
There are elements of black humour, too, of body parts being tallied in the amputee ward, of the clumsiness of friends and family dealing with a limbless loved one.
More than self-healing though, Parker says writing this powerful novel “was the opportunity to do something else with my life, the opportunity to create and to write and have people read my work’’.
While Parker shared many of his main character’s experiences he admits “writing in fiction made it a much more powerful story than memoir and I was able to experiment with a different way of telling the story’’.
Parker’s characters see all sides of the conflict, from the brave British captain leading his men to the naive insurgents making bombs and the frightened villagers trying to protect their families from foreign soldiers.
Parker is the son of a knighted British general who, four months after his son was wounded, took up the post of deputy NATO commander in Afghanistan.
The young officer had studied fine arts before his deployment and during his rehabilitation took up an armyfunded week-long writing course in the Devon countryside. It taught him invaluable lessons on observation, structure and dialogue.
“The course taught me to look at things from different angles,’’ Parker says. “I met a lot of interesting characters and came away with a lot of ideas on how to use fiction to tell an important story.’’
He is already working on a second novel, with “no soldiers and no inanimate objects ... but it will be another novel about conflict’’.
For now, Parker continues to mirror the struggles and triumphs of Tom Barnes who, at the novel’s conclusion, is jogging in a London park on prosthetic blades with a dog chasing him and barking at the strangeness of the contraptions. There is a fall on a bump in the bitumen; the cracking noise of going face first on the tarmac; of bleeding palms studded with black grit.
And just like his fictional hero, the author knows how to pick himself up, remove the damaged prosthetics, attach a spare set of legs and get back to work.