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Anatomy of a Soldier

 

Harry Parker,

 

Faber & Faber,  26 February 2016

I am not normally given to reviewing fiction, but I had heard good things of this novel, and it did not disappoint.  Some of England’s greatest novelists  -  say Charlotte Bronte or Jane Austen – wrote from a little observation, and lots of imagination. One of the distinguishing features of Parker’s astonishing debut novel is that it is almost all written from experience. For he did a tour of Afghan as a Captain in the Rifles, when he was blown up by an IED in November 2009. Whilst there have been many I-was-there-in-Helmand memoirs, this book is pungent proof that a novel lets the writer say more.

 

Anatomy’s structure is innovative: each chapter is told from the viewpoint of some tangible object – such as plasma, body armour, or bicycle. Further the narrative jumps around the time line. The overall effect is to unsettle the reader, and mirror the chaos of the battlefield; but the other benefit of this writer’s wrinkle is to allow Parker to give the story balance – most episodes have the counterpoint of the Afghan/Taliban perspective. The story is built around the IED explosion in which the central figure, Capt Tom Barnes, suffers severe lower limb injury, and we then follow his journey through casevac, Bastion’s trauma unit, ICU back at Brum, and then lengthy rehab.

 

Given that Parker must have been unconscious for much of the early part of this journey, his research must have been very assiduous – perhaps the discovery of his treatment was cathartic. The early phases of this bring to mind, Death of a Soldier, written by the mother of Mark Evison, who of course did not survive.

 

The description of his main operation is sufficiently vivid as to leave the reader gasping for breath. The reader follows, step by painful step, his rehab, and his gradual re-assimilation into British society. The medal parade rang horribly true for me: it took me right back to watching SODtm  on a chill winter’s day complete with snow flurries, chest out, nose blue; one comrade being escorted by his mate as he had left his eyesight back in Helmand.

 

The scenes with his family tugged at my heartstrings, at least. Here the back story adds another layer of interest, since Harry is the son of General Sir Nick Parker, who was Deputy Commander of ISAF at the time of Harry’s fateful Herrick tour.

 

Whilst Parker by no means confines himself to the physical aspects of his traumatic episode, the book is an appropriate reminder of the physical damage wrought on his generation by its participation in the Afghan war. It is a worthy companion volume to Among You, Jake Wood’s memoir which focuses on the mental legacy. Parker’s theme is nuanced such that the reader is in no doubt he recognises the sense of loss amongst the Afghans ISAF was there (ostensibly) to help. As the central Afghan figures notes "What I do know, is that no one wins."

 

This is a visceral first novel – highly recommended. The caveats below are trivial.

 

Caveats?

The direct speech can be a bit clunky, and much of it does not ring quite true. No four letter words for a start! Who would say “I am second in command here”. “2 i/c” would I think be more natural. Same with “Patrol Base”, when any squaddie would say ‘PB’. Yet if the author is trying to make life easy for a lay reader, “HLS” (as in Helicopter Landing Site) is not explained. Zap numbers are used frequently in the narrative, yet not explained. Perhaps this is all a function of lax editing.

 

Anatomy has echoes of WE Handley’s Invictus, part of which became the clarion call for the Invictus games, 2014’s very  successful championship for wounded warriors.

 

Invictus

WE Henley

 

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

 

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced or cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbow’d.

 

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

 

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged  with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.