Almost 15 years after the US launched Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan following the attacks on New York and Washington, literary responses to the war on global terrorism continue to emerge. But it has been more of a trickle than a torrent, with writers seemingly tentative about addressing the conflicts of our century through fiction.
Within this slow-forming battalion, there is a small band of works by former soldiers who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and are now coming of age as writers. Notable among them are Iraq war veteran Kevin Powers’ 2012 debut The Yellow Birds, and the National Book Award-winning short-story collection Redeployment (2014), by former US Marine officer Phil Klay. Alongside them stands Brian Turner’s two volumes of war-inspired poetry, Here, Bullet (2005) and Phantom Noise (2010), and his memoir of his time serving with the US army in both Iraq and Bosnia, My Life as a Foreign Country (2014).
To these works can now be added Anatomy of a Soldier by former British army captain Harry Parker. The novel recounts the story of 25-year-old Captain Tom Barnes, who is deployed to an unnamed war zone (although it’s clearly Afghanistan), where he steps on an improvised explosive device, losing both legs. Although the story is told piecemeal — fragments of an exploded narrative that are out of order, and slowly reassembled in the mind of the reader — the plot itself is simple and the blast is signalled from the very first page. And yet Parker manages to create great moments of suspense and pathos, thanks largely to the innovative structure he employs.
Rather than using a first-person narrative, Parker has opted to tell the story with a chorus of inanimate objects. There are 45 in all, from a tourniquet to a bullet, a bag of fertiliser to a surgical saw, a catheter collecting urine in a hospital to an intricate rug gifted to a village elder and a pair of trainers bought by a young insurgent in an Afghan market. Tom himself is often referred to by his army number, BA5799: another object.
Although the execution of this ambitious conceit is occasionally uneven, Parker’s decision to tell his tale through these items makes for surprisingly moving reading. The atomised structure offers different angles on the same events, while the inevitable detachment of the objects introduces a sense of fatalism: the bullet patiently waits its turn in the magazine; the fertiliser lies inert before becoming a bomb; the saw sits on a table during life-or-death surgery before it is called on to cut through Tom’s leg. “I had changed the body’s proportions for ever,” the saw recounts. “It no longer filled the space it should. The bone stuck out of the muscle and tissue, the end flat with deep red marrow and surrounded by the sharp white where I had mutilated it.”
Occasionally this literary device comes dangerously close to reading like an extended version of the guessing game “What Am I?”. (“I am attached to the wall by a wire. My serial number is 245-81-BS. I am a small white box with a red button labelled CALL.” So begins the chapter told from the point of view of the hospital bedside alarm.)
Elsewhere, observations are often acute and sensitive. We follow a carpet from the weavers in a village in the north of the country, knotting wool and banging down threads with a heavy comb, before the rug is trimmed, washed, dried and transported south. All of this is told with a precision that collapses weeks and months into just a couple of pages and establishes the rug-making as a timeless art beyond current events. But then when the rug gets to its destination, time again slows as Tom takes tea with a village elder sitting on it, offering assistance for the school the man hopes to reopen.
When Tom is in hospital back in the UK, still unconscious, his parents come to visit: “The man looked down at us with determination. The woman clutched a red handbag and looked drained and shocked. The man’s arm held her firmly to his side and he pressed her tighter.” The chapter is told from the point of view of a plastic tracheal intubation tube that helps him breathe, and the scene gains power from its understatement.
The same power is found in a passage narrated by a mirror in a small hospital toilet. Staring at his reflection, Tom sees himself, newly truncated. “He knew I reflected what others saw, and it shocked him. He shook his head in disbelief. He was unnatural, created by violence and saved by soldiers and medics: he’d survived the unsurvivable and it showed. He felt disgusted.”
Perhaps surprising in a debut novel by a former soldier is the spareness of the biographical details: “Harry Parker . . . joined the British army when he was 23 and served in Iraq and Afghanistan.” What is not mentioned is that Parker comes from a long line of soldiers, and his father is General Sir Nick Parker, who was deputy Nato commander in Afghanistan. It also doesn’t mention that Parker — like Tom Barnes — lost both legs in Afghanistan in 2009 and now walks with prosthetic limbs.
Following the well-worn advice given to first-time novelists, Parker has written about what he knows. It just happens that he’s done it unusually well.
Anatomy of a Soldier, by Harry Parker, Faber, RRP£14.99 / Knopf, RRP$25.95, 320 pages