Last night I braved the Leicester Square hordes (and swiftly ducked down Cecil Court to elude them), and joined Faber & Faber and Goldsboro Books for the launch of Harry Parker's Anatomy of a Soldier, Goldsboro's March Book of the Month.
Anatomy of a Soldier has gained recognition over the past few weeks, with deservedly glowing reviews, tweets and features on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Breakfast News to name a few. I had been lucky to read a preview at the end of 2015 and was deeply moved by this astonishing novel. I was waiting for it to be Parker’s time and with a US publishing deal and the book being translated into other languages, it looks like that time is now.
Former Rifles Captain Harry Parker was on foot patrol in Afghanistan when he stepped on an IED (improvised explosive device) and lost his left leg. A subsequent infection later claimed his right leg and despite life-changing injuries, extensive operations and having to learn to walk again, he now moves confidently on prosthetics.
His debut novel is a work of fiction, rather than personal memoir, but draws on his own experiences in the conflict zone. It introduces us to Captain Tom Barnes, mostly known as BA5799, who is blown up by an IED while returning from patrol. We learn of the lead up to his injury, the aftermath, the local people and insurgents who planted the bomb and the friends and family that rally around him.
Yet, what makes Anatomy of a Soldier so extraordinary is the way Parker has chosen to narrate it - rather than offering us straightforward characters, instead forty-five inanimate objects provide the novel’s voice. These objects, including surgical equipment, his mother’s handbag and a pair of trainers worn by an insurgent cleverly show us the complexities and barbarity of war.
It’s unusual, I know, but it has to be read to be believed.
“It is a novel of concentrated ferocity and chilling accomplishments, tense and unflinching but alive to every nuance of feeling" (Hilary Mantel)
Generally speaking, I don’t tend to choose books about conflict, finding them a little too brutal and I can’t deny I had preconceptions when I started Anatomy of a Soldier. These assumptions dissipated by the end of the first chapter - Parker is a terrifically skilled writer, and his portrayal has great empathy and intelligence. Chapters seamlessly switch between the battlefield, the hospitals and treatment rooms, his family home and the pub with great effect.
Undoubtedly, the descriptions of Barnes’ injuries are shocking (‘the green blankets were flat where limbs should have been’) and there are heart-in-mouth moments throughout; exchanges between Barnes and other injured patients, when friends come to visit his family home to share a beer and he falls out of his wheelchair, and England, with its beauty, its tantalising familiarities and normality being so far away - surely none of us can imagine how that feels.
Parker’s depiction of the detonation (recounted by the bomb itself) creates a sad juxtaposition for the reader - the sky a dome of stars as the dry mud about the bomb flexes, cracks down and pushes its metal strips together, creating a circuit that filled its wires. It functions, and all thoughts of glimmering stars are forgotten.
The objects themselves allow you to get close to the action, but at the same time you remain comfortably distant; numbly removed from the horror. At times they sound hostile and dangerous. The ending genuinely had me in tears. It reminded me that war is senseless - there are no real winners.
Surrounded by beautifully preserved first editions in Goldsboro’s bookshop, and after being introduced by Faber & Faber Editor Lee Brackstone, Parker spoke a few words of appreciation for those who had helped Anatomy of a Soldier come to life. He seemed visibly moved by the attention.
Afterwards I took the plunge and introduced myself to the author while I could; understandably everyone wanted to snatch a few words with him. I found Parker to be humble and self-deprecating; honestly, if I had even an ounce of his intelligence and modesty and had been able to transform an unthinkable experience into a moving, inspiring and unique novel I'd basically be a massive show off. Anatomy of a Soldier is an extraordinary, imaginative debut that draws on great humanity and heroism, about surviving the unsurvivable.
During his short speech, Parker said ‘I wish the book could talk, not me’. ‘It does’ said a representative from Goldsboro Books and I couldn't agree more.
Read this book, please.
Anatomy of a Soldier by Harry Parker is out now. (Faber & Faber)