Tag Archives: Anatomy of a Soldier

Paperbacks to Look Out for January 2017: Part One

Cover imageLots of lip-smacking paperbacks piled up on bookshop tables to tempt you this January, all ready and waiting for those Christmas book tokens we’ve been given, or hope we’ll have been given. Top of the list is a book I took some persuading to read when it was first published but Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier turned out to be extraordinarily inventive and assured, particularly for a debut. Parker is a veteran of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and his novel 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. You may share my initial scepticism about this structure but it works beautifully 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. Hard to imagine quite why the publisher has abandoned the entirely suitable hardback jacket for the rather odd pink number they’ve chosen to adorn the paperback edition.

I’ve not read Paraic O’Donnell’s The Maker of Swans, much talked about on Twitter when it was first published – not always a good thing – but a striking jacket and an intriguing synopsis has piqued my interest. Once a man of note with extraordinary gifts, Mr Crowe has given himself over to earthly pleasures, living in faded grandeur with his ward, Clara, and his manservant. When he commits a crime of passion he draws the attention of the head of the secret society to which he belongs, attention that’s soon diverted to Clara who, it seems, may be able to save them all. Sounds like it might be just the ticket for long dark evenings, if done well.Cover image

Alaa Al Aswany’s The Automobile Club of Egypt takes us to a very different time and place. Set in post-war Egypt, Aswany’s novel views the social and political change engulfing the country through the shenanigans at Cairo’s automobile club. Its European members are attended by a squabbling band of servants ruled by the tyrannical Alku. When one of them rebels, his family finds themselves drawn into both public and private politics: ‘Egyptians both inside and outside the Automobile Club will all face a stark choice: to live safely without dignity, or to fight for their rights and risk everything’ according to the publishers. Aswany’s much-acclaimed The Yacoubian Building offered a microcosm of Egypt around the time of the first Gulf War and it sounds as if The Automobile Club of Egypt takes a similar tack with the end of Ottoman rule.

Cover imageMy last choice for this batch is without doubt a Marmite book: you’ll either love it or hate it. Nicola Barker’s The Cauliflower® is born of her fascination with Sri Ramakrishna – an avatar, widely regarded as having played a leading role in reviving Hinduism, influencing both Gandhi and Nehru. Her novel is her extraordinarily inventive, idiosyncratic interpretation of the avatar’s sketchy story and defies a simple synopsis. Perhaps it’s best to quote Barker herself who sees her novel as ‘a painstakingly constructed, slightly mischievous and occasionally provocative/chaotic mosaic of many other people’s thoughts, memories and experiences’. I loved it, otherwise it wouldn’t be here.

A click on the title will take you to my reviews for both Parker and Barker’s novels, and to a fuller synopsis for the other two. A second batch of paperbacks will follow after Christmas and if you’d like to catch up with the hardback previews, part one is here and part two here.

To those of you who are looking forward to Christmas, I hope you have a lovely time. If, as it is for many, it’s a more complicated time of the year for you, I hope it will pass as painlessly as possible,

Books of the Year 2016: Part Two

Cover imageAfter a stonking start to my reading year, the second instalment of 2016 favourites covers the four months from March to June with just eight books, beginning with a rediscovered American classic. First published in 1967, Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog requires a strong stomach to get through the first page but the rest of this wrenching novel makes the effort well worth it. Written in straightforward yet cinematic prose it tells the story of the Burbank brothers, owners of one of Montana’s biggest ranches and rich beyond reckoning yet still sharing the same room they’ve slept in for all but the few years they were at university. The publisher’s comparison with John Williams’ celebrated Stoner may seem extravagant at first but Savage’s novel proves itself to be more than worthy of it.

My second March novel seemed a little overlooked at the time – I hope the paperback publication has put that right. Opening in 1999, Guillermo Erades’ Back to Moscow follows a young PhD student as he parties his way around a city in the midst of transforming itself. Erades vividly evokes Moscow awash with people on the make while others look on in dismay, charting the changes from the invasion of expats – welcomed everywhere with open arms – to the rise of the oligarchs, Putin and the war in Chechnya. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this debut. What could easily have been a cheap and lurid hedonistic tale turns out to be very much more than that.

Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier was April’s surprise success for me. It took some persuasionCover image to get me to read it – its structure seemed too tricksy by half. Parker, a veteran of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, tells the story of Captain Tom Barnes who steps on an improvised explosive device – just as Parker did – from the point of view of forty-five objects, ranging from the tourniquet tied around what’s left of Tom’s leg to his occupational service medal. Parker carries this off beautifully, managing to be both objective and extraordinarily vivid in his descriptions of what happens to Tom. It’s a thoroughly impressive and inventive piece of work. Not an autobiography but it’s impossible not to think of the author’s own experience when reading it.

If Anatomy of a Soldier’s structure sounds a little too unconventional for you best steer clear of May’s favourite. Nicola Barker’s The Cauliflower is an extraordinarily inventive, idiosyncratic interpretation of Sri Ramakrishna’s story, the avatar with whom she became fascinated as a child. It has two narrative strands running through it – neither chronological – with a multitude of diversions and devices, from recounting dreams to imagining the goings-on in the temple through the eyes of a swift equipped with a tiny camera. Barker frequently pulls the rug out from beneath her readers’ feet, contradicting and questioning what has gone before.

June made up for April and May’s sparse favourites with four winners for me, starting with one of the most talked about British novels of this year, at least in my neck of the Twitter woods. Set in 1885, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent is the tale of a small group of people each of whom comes to their own conclusions about a winged serpent, first seen in 1669 and now thought to be roaming the marshes around Aldwinter. A novel of ideas all wrapped up in a riveting bit of storytelling and gorgeously vivid prose, it focuses on the passionate friendship between the recently widowed Cora, fascinated by the emerging theories about the natural world, and Will Ransome, Aldwinter’s pastor, determined to ignore the titular serpent’s effect on his parishioners. A very fine book indeed.

Cover imageMy second June favourite is Jill Dawson’s The Crime Writer which sprang from her self-confessed addiction to Patricia Highsmith’s novels. It’s based on Highsmith’s sojourn in Suffolk where she set herself up to be close to her married lover. Dawson divides her narrative between first and third person, making Highsmith the quintessential unreliable narrator, further unsettling her readers with her protagonist’s ceaselessly questioning, claustrophobic inner monologue. Dawson has a talent for working historical figures into her fiction – most notably Rupert Brooke in The Great Lover – but The Crime Writer is the ultimate in literary fan fiction. Absolutely engrossing even if, like me, you’re not a Highsmith aficionado.

Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter caught my attention for June’s preview when I speculated that it might merely be an entertaining piece of fluff but it turned out to be much better than that. It shares a restaurant backdrop with a January favourite, Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, this time in New York where Tess has fetched up having turned her back on smalltown Ohio. After proving her mettle, Tess catches the eye of both Simone, the restaurant’s expert sommelier, and Jake, its rakish bartender, and is drawn into the orbit of these two damaged personalities. It’s a thoroughly engrossing novel, hard to put down, and an acutely perceptive portrait of a young woman whose idealism is stripped from her.

The first half of the year was rounded off for me by the discovery of Icelandic author Sjón’sCover image writing through Moonstone. Set in 1918, this fable-like novella follows sixteen-year-old orphan Máni Steinn over the three months that Spanish influenza rages through Reykjavík. Mani funds his expensive movie habit by turning tricks, always on the lookout for Sólborg Gudbjörnsdóttir who zooms around the city on her red Indian motorcycle, dressed in black leathers, the very image of Musidora, the star of Máni’s favourite movie. There’s a gorgeously poetic, dreamlike quality to this book whose ending is extraordinarily beautiful – both fantastical and moving. Kudos to Victoria Cribb for such a sensitive translation of a remarkable piece of writing.

A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review of each of the books should you be interested. The third books of the year post will cover July and August, two months whose splendours rival those of January and February.

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.