Anatomy of a Soldier
Harry Parker, now 32, was a captain in the British Army when, in 2009, he stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. He lost his lower left leg in the blast, and his lower right leg was later amputated in hospital.
The popularity of war stories penned by former combatants might betray a perverse voyeurism in the civilian reader. We don’t go, we weren’t there, but we want to hear how horrific it was so we can make our judgements and justify our lounge-room moralism. In a refreshing upending of expectation, Parker eschews the conventional memoir route in addressing his story by creating a fictional proxy, Captain Tom Barnes, to whom exactly the same thing happens. The truly mind-bending trick is to present the narrative in the first-person voices of 45 objects that bear witness to the lead-up and aftermath of the explosion.
The result denies readers their moral high ground, eliminates schmaltz and pity, and is superb. From the tourniquet that saves his life to a hundred-dollar bill given to an Afghan man as compensation for his dead son, a story emerges, jumping back and forth in time. The reader is exposed to the same firefight over and over, through the point-of-view narration of a bicycle, a drone, a snowflake and, in a heart-stopping and uncomfortably exciting chapter, a bullet itching to be let loose to fulfil his function.
The continued lack of emotional subjectivity in the narration (these are objects, after all) creates an atmosphere of cool detachment, which is useful when matters turn graphic (the amputation scene as narrated by an electric bone saw is sickening). This is not a book written by a bitter veteran, granting us an empathic purge of our complicity. This is very personal, boots-on-the-ground reportage as told by a range of unexpected correspondents.
Anatomy of a Soldier is thus neither pro- nor anti-war, yet still manages to be complex and troubling. There is a scene late on (from the perspective of a pint glass) where Barnes is catching up with an old friend who feels compelled to tell him that he would smash a bar stool over the heads of the men who did this to his mate. Barnes disquietingly informs him that he would buy those same men a drink instead. For better or worse, they have made him who he is, and the time for judgement has long passed. JD
Faber Fiction, 320pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 2, 2016 as "Harry Parker, Anatomy of a Soldier". Subscribe here.