Soldier’s objective take on violence of war
The best writers are made in two ways. More often than not the fundamental commitment is a quiet, slow-motion adventure, years in the deciding, but sometimes the making happens much faster, ascribable to one experience, one pivotal interaction, one transformative idea. In the case of debut novelist Harry Parker it was, as he has readily divulged, the loss of half of himself that first inspired and then motivated him to become a writer.
Now a 32-year-old British ex-soldier, in 2009 Parker’s legs were blown off in Afghanistan by an improvised explosive device. An army-fund- ed creative writing course in 2013, taken towards the end of his long physical recovery, helped Parker come to terms mentally and emotionally with what had happened to him. It was during the course that his remarkable novel began to take shape.
Anatomy of a Soldier is an account of a few years in the life of British army captain Tom Barnes, who in the opening pages steps on a mine, with each chapter narrated from the perspective of a different object. These objects are, in order: a tourniquet, a desert combat boot, an IED, a cuffed endotracheal tube, a backpack, a handbag, a Nike sneaker, a zygote fungus, a pair of night-vision goggles, a broom handle, an oscillating medical bone saw, a 9V battery, a headset radio, a blood bag, a digital watch, an army beret, a catheter, a shaving razor, an army cot, a piece of printing paper, an aerial photograph, a rug, a piece of letter-writing paper, a rifle, a wheelchair, a bathroom mirror, a bed, a bicycle, a prosthetic leg, an unmanned aerial surveillance plane (that is, a drone), a drop of water, a wheelbarrow, a $100 bill, a service medal, a pint glass, Kevlar upper body armour, a hydraulic prosthetic leg, an army helmet, an explosion, a set of dog tags, a flag and a prosthetic carbonfibre athletic running blade.
It’s important to list them all because a) it shows the depth of the experiment and Parker’s fidelity to it, and b) it’s in no way a spoiler to reveal these objects for, as James Wood knows, a novel that can be truly spoiled by the summary of its plot is a novel that was already spoiled by that plot. Anatomy of a Soldier succeeds because of its fragmented nature, for it doesn’t just tell, and it doesn’t even just show — it involves.
Throughout these 45 short chapters, as far as any linear narrative goes, it’s a thoroughly disorienting read — indeed, Parker has said of the chapters that he “wanted it to be like you could chuck them into the air and read them in any order because that’s what it’s like to be blown up”. The chapters jump back and forth in time, describing scenes from Barnes’s deployment, his long and harrowing recuperation, and the lives of local people, including Afghan insurgents, whose paths Barnes eventually crosses.
Even without the autobiographical parallels, Anatomy of a Soldier is an uncommon feat: a work of literary cubism that will appeal to a wide readership. We are familiar with these objects whether we’ve held them or seen them in books, films and TV shows, and we are starkly unfamiliar with all the rest: real war zones, actual explosions, the losing of limbs. It often takes a few paragraphs or sometimes even most or all of a chapter before we understand which object we are embodying. Again, this disjointedness is deliberate. Parker again: “I liked the idea of cre-