Anatomy of a Soldier by Harry Parker: A life in forty-five objects

Cover imageIt took some persuasion to get me to read this novel. When it was pitched to me it seemed a) too clever for its own good and b) up an entirely different alley from mine but it’s published by Faber who know what they’re talking about when it comes to literary fiction so I thought what the hell. UK readers may well have heard all about it by now – lots of publicity including a spot on Channel 4 News and Radio 4’s Today programme meant it was much talked about on publication. Deservedly so, as it turns out. Harry Parker is a veteran of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars: Anatomy of a Soldier is the story of Captain Tom Barnes who steps on an improvised explosive device – just as Parker did – told from the point of view of forty-five objects.

The novel opens with the tourniquet which Tom’s comrades tie tightly around what’s left of his leg, waiting for the medics to arrive. It’s spent eight weeks, two days and four hours in the pocket of his trousers and will be burnt as surgical waste once the doctors begin their work. This is Tom’s third tour of duty. He’s settled himself in, chatted with his men, read letters from home, endured the boredom of war punctuated with moments of fear and adrenaline when out on operations. He‘s talked to the man who manages the village irrigation system and been helped by the man’s son who fears for the friend who has been drawn into the insurgency by the promise of much-needed cash. When Tom steps on the IED he’s first treated in a field hospital, then shipped home for further surgery before the long and arduous process of rehabilitation begins. By the end of the novel, he has found his way to a life that is entirely different but no less rewarding.

You may share my initial scepticism about the structure Parker uses to unfold his story but it works extraordinarily well and continues to work through all forty-five objects which range from Tom’s boot to his mother’s handbag, his occupational service medal to the IED’s detonator. By telling his story in this way, Parker manages to be both objective and extraordinarily vivid in his descriptions of what happens to Tom and to the villagers. It’s not a linear narrative but Parker is careful to tie in any loose ends, weaving the villagers’ stories into Tom’s in a compassionate, empathetic way – quite remarkable given his own experience. The writing is striking at times – a boot observes ‘other boots like me fidgeted under the table’ before the company ships out; a respirator sees that other patients’ ‘bodies were disfigured, too, and did not fill the beds as they should’. Parker conveys emotion beautifully, recording the prosaic exchanges hiding fear and worry as Tom’s father shaves his son in hospital. Towards the end, as Tom has a drink with a civilian friend who commiserates with him he says ‘If the men who did this to me walked in here right now, … … I’d offer them a drink’. Hard for those of us who’ve never been through such an experience to understand such a reaction but my hope is Parker is articulating his own feelings. Altogether a thoroughly impressive and inventive piece of work. Not an autobiography but it’s impossible not to think of Parker’s own experience when reading it.

That’s it from me for this week. H and I are off to Nice tomorrow for a few days, hoping that a little spring sunshine will finish off my flu recuperation. Thanks to all those kind people who wished me a speedy recovery after Monday’s post and many commiserations to those who knew only too well what I was talking about.

18 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Soldier by Harry Parker: A life in forty-five objects”

  1. Nothing like a nice little bit of Nice to make you well again (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun!). Take care!
    As for this book, I think it does sound clever – if perhaps a bit tortuous. But I’m all for experimental fiction, even if I’m not always in the right mood to read it.

    1. Very hard to avoid the word ‘nice’ when talking about Nice I’m finding! I started it expecting to give it up to be honest but it draws you in. Very brave for a debut novelist.

  2. I know there’s lots of talk about this book and it does sound amazing but I’m not quite convinced I want to read it: it’s the inanimate objects being given a voice. I know it can be done well but after suffering through The Improbability of Love with that bloody patronising painting, I don’t know if I can face it!

    1. Sadly, I’ve just bought The Improbability of Love and am now regretting it! I expected the book to be far too tricksy but much to my surprise it works, and works very well. Some of the chapters are very short, like a snapshot, which somehow makes the writing both poignant and objective.

  3. This book sounds fantastic. I love the idea of telling a story through objects, and I think it deserves a read just for the author being creative enough to try it. (Even better to have your endorsement, though!)
    Enjoy Nice! Hope it does the trick.

    1. Thank you – I have hopes that the feeling of warm sunshine on my face will sort me out! I needed more convincing than you about that structure but it became apparent very quickly that Parker was more than capable of pulling it off. Quite a feat for a debut novelist, particularly as he’s writing about his own experiences. It’s very much more effective than telling the story in a first-person linear narrative.

  4. Oh I’m definitely intrigued about this one as it’s spookily very good timing; my current writing prompt is giving a voice to an inanimate object & I’ve just finished listening to this seasons Serial podcast series about a soldier based in Afghanistan… ALSO I’ve finally persuaded OH to read more fiction – he’s just agreed to tackle Chevalier’s latest because of the ‘apple tree’ context (horticulturalist & aboriculturalist) but his squaddie history may make this a contender too. So pleased Faber persuaded you to read/review it.

    Enjoy Nice & hope the rays are healong & uplifting… great time to top up depleted Vit D stores xx

    1. Thanks, Poppy. Looking forward to a glass or two of wine, too. Something else I haven’t been able to enjoy for the last month!

      The timing of this one seems spot-on for you then. I would be very interested to hear what your OH makes of it if he does read it.

  5. This sounds like a fascinating read. I can understand your reluctance to pick it up (I think the talking through objects would put me off too) but it sounds like it was worth making a little time for.

  6. Imagine having to write about such scary injuries, what better way than through objects, less emotional and so right for a soldier who has been trained to make those awful life/death decisions. I haven’t read it yet. Will wait until June when Harry is visiting Finchley 🙂

    1. It works extraordinarily well, Rosie. I’m sure it will be interesting to hear him talk about writing the book and what made him choose the way he structured it.

  7. Pingback: Paperbacks to Look Out for January 2017: Part One | A life in books

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