Anatomy of a Soldier, by Harry Parker

I functioned.

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That line, “I functioned”, is spoken by a bomb. It’s just one of the forty-five different objects that narrate this novel, swapping off chapters to create a picture of British army life in Afghanistan that one journalist has already described as “literary cubism”. It’s an appropriate word, I think, for its sense of fractured perspective: these objects frame the experience of the protagonist, Captain Tom Barnes, but whenever the same event is recounted from another point of view, the reader gets a broader sense of how causes and effects tie into each other. Like the conflict itself, the weeks that the novel covers are complicated. There’s the fear and boredom of patrolling; there’s the explosion itself; there’s Barnes’s recovery in an English hospital; and there’s also another narrative strand that belongs to Afghan locals, both the insurgents and those who fear them.

Each object narrates in the first person. It’s a huge gamble, the kind of strategy that makes you think uneasily of your high-school creative writing class. Pleasingly, it actually works here. Parker has said that he set rules for himself while writing, including one that specified an object could only “know” what someone was thinking if that character was touching them. That minimizes the inherent silliness of a telepathic camp bed (or body armour, or snowflake), and instead creates an atmosphere where it seems entirely natural that a piece of equipment being used by a soldier should enter into some kind of emotional partnership with them. In one scene, Barnes crouches in a ditch with his platoon and experiences the strongest sense of connection in the book; the way that men have to work together, and tools have to work with men, during warfare makes such connection plausible. When your life relies on the proper functioning of your helmet mike, you have a relationship with that object; why shouldn’t it, for its part, have a relationship with you?

One obvious reason why not is the charge of sentimentality, of which, thank God, there is none. This is the other clever aspect of narrating a war novel through the inanimate; a flag does not, in and of itself, have a philosophical mind, although the eventual fate of a flag can (and does) make a philosophical point. In all war novels narrated by humans, an evaluation of the morality of war enters the picture at some point. It must, because non-sociopaths can’t do anything for very long without wondering whether it’s the right thing or not. By using objects, which have no sense of morality, Parker avoids having to either denounce the war or praise it, which makes the novel far less preachy than it might have been. It’s also a canny move for a man whose father is the former deputy NATO commander in Afghanistan, and whose own Army career follow his protagonist’s closely.

If Parker makes any moral or political statement at all, it is in the inclusion of the insurgents. We hear from objects around the doomed boy Latif, his former best friend Faridun Hhan, Faridun’s father, who assists the soldiers and fears for his family’s safety , and Aktar, the leader of the provincial insurgency. A scene where Barnes enters the Hhan compound and offers money to help rebuild the school is given piquancy by the fact that we know the Hhans are under the eye of Aktar and his men: they’ve already threatened to cut off the head of the daughter, Lalma. And the appeal of the insurgency is poignantly expressed by a chapter told from the point of view of a pair of knockoff Nikes, which young Latif purchases with his first paycheck from Aktar. They’re pristine and they’re incredibly cool–never underestimate the power of cool to a seventeen-year-old–and there’s no way  he could have afforded them working as an agricultural laborer in the province. I’m not as convinced by Parker’s portrait of the higher-ups; perhaps it just takes more time and space than he had to explore what makes a man believe that IEDs are the best way to achieve his (vague) ends.

Although I want to call it a stylistic triumph for what it does with its narrating voices, I can’t quite, because there’s a certain clunkiness to the sentences. Parker has a habit of linking independent clauses together with the word “and”, which is unnecessary; you can see that he was possibly inspired by the polysyndeton of Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy, but even those chaps don’t always pull it off. McCarthy, in particular, only manages it because his sentences are perfectly balanced, as though he’s sung them out loud to himself a dozen times. Parker hasn’t; the effect, instead of being hypnotic, is frequently sing-song. Sometimes, it’s actually nonsensical:

He returned home and expected that Hassan’s men had visited. [pg 216]

I am a communications platform and information bounced through me. [pg 238]

He hated this, and he stretched his fingertips into the hole he’d created. [pg 280]

None of these independent clauses need to be yoked together like this. In the first sentence, the grammatical implication is that Faridun’s “expecting” is accomplished after he returns home, much like “He returned home and boiled the kettle”. But in fact, his expectation occurs while he is on his way home. The “and” creates a false chronology. In the second sentence, the two verbs, “am” and “bounced”, are in different tenses—fine if they weren’t linked by that “and”. In the third, you expect the sentence to read something like “He hated this, he thought, and he stretched…” But instead, the distance from “hating” (an abstract action) and “stretching” (a concrete one) is mediated only by the comma and “and”. It’s slightly more defensible than the previous two sentences, but it disorients. It’s a little surprising that no one at Faber caught this; these are just three examples of a tendency that runs through the whole book, start to finish.

The other tactic Parker adopts that can go both ways is a lack of specificity in the characterisation and the dialogue. You get a decent sense of who Barnes is when you’re with him in Afghanistan, but he could still be almost any halfway-decent officer, capable in command but emotionally torn. Sometimes the vagueness of the dialogue works brilliantly. In a patrol base, conversation probably doesn’t vary all that much, and the brief exchanges that we’re privy to between Barnes and his colleagues are smile-inducing, silly, brotherly. Recovering in England, though, Barnes becomes more of a cipher. His sorrow and shame and helplessness are Everyman traits, which on the one hand means he’s relatable, but on the other hand means he doesn’t feel individuated. The dialogue, too, is oddly reliant on names: he calls his brother “David” , his dad “Dad”, and his mum “Mum”, far more frequently than any actual person would. Likewise, they nearly always address him directly as “Tom”. I think authors do this in order to create a sense of emotional intensity, which is a perfectly legitimate goal; but to use someone’s name is more intimate than you realise. Imagine addressing your sibling or parent or partner by name every three sentences. They’d think you were patronising them, or trying to sell them something.

That said, what Parker has achieved is immense: a book about a highly emotive subject that has a greater claim to objectivity than any of its peers that I can think of. He’s tackled Army life, but, just as importantly, the physical agony and emotional strain of rehabilitation. It’s a brave, bold thing to want to write about, and to choose this kaleidoscopic strategy is bold, too. I suspect that stylistic infelicities will be brushed over in broadsheet reviews, and, to be honest, I can’t say I’ll blame the reviewers. Parker earns praise through sheer technical audacity; in this case, that really is enough.

My copy of this came from the pre-pub pile at work, but if it hadn’t, it would’ve come from Kate McQuaid at Faber. Anatomy of a Soldier was published in the UK on 25 February.

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11 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Soldier, by Harry Parker

  1. Great review and I really agree with the points you make – I finished reading the novel this afternoon and will be blogging about it once my ideas have settled. I was genuinely impressed though, especially at how Parker takes what sounds like a creative writing exercise and turns it into an intelligent, sensitive and very well-structured novel.

  2. Not many reviewers, bloggers or otherwise, comment on the specifics of grammar in books. It’s really helpful to hear WHY someone things the sentences don’t sound quite right. Nice job! I enjoyed your review.

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