Anatomy of a Soldier, by Harry Parker review: Objective witnesses
An insider’s story of a devastating modern war told from the perspective of 45 objects
Anatomy of a Soldier
The poet TS Eliot believed the only way of expressing emotion in art was by finding an “objective correlative”, where a set of objects, situations or chain of events acts as a formula to show a particular emotion. Ex-soldier Harry Parker takes this concept literally in his debut novel by telling a story of modern warfare from the perspective of 45 different objects.
Anatomy of a Soldier breaks down the machine of war into its composite parts: desert boots, a bag of fertiliser, a homemade bomb, a tube inserted into a blown-up soldier. It is a novel take on a difficult subject, blending fiction with reportage. The objects can read the minds of the humans they encounter. They see all sides of the conflict, from the brave British captain leading his platoon, to the head of an insurgent cell and his naïve young recruit, to the elder in the local village who is caught in the middle while trying to protect his family.
The unnamed country where the war takes place will be familiar to readers from television reports of Afghanistan and Iraq. Captain Tom Barnes and his fellow soldiers wait out their downtime in the inhospitable landscape, dreaming of the comforts of home. A thin plot is based around a single mission during which Tom, known for much of the book as BA5799, steps on an IED that results in the amputation of both of his legs.
The trauma happens early on, with time and perspectives shifting back and forth around the incident. There is little narrative suspense: Parker is not interested in why things happen – it’s war, that’s why – but how they happen. He gives an accurate and at times exquisitely detailed account of the mechanics of war and its devastating aftermath.
Savage and unsentimental, the omniscient objects report straight from the battle zone, highlighting what soldiers take on in the name of duty. A tube inserted into BA5799 describes what he looks like on the operating table: “Your left little finger hung by a sinew. Your groin had a clean shining wound that oozed blood. A testicle hung open, deformed and alien.”
The scenes of Tom in hospital are some of the novel’s most affecting. We witness the inhumanity of him begging a nurse for a sip of water the night before a surgery. There is the pain, the multiple operations, the slow recovery, Tom’s friend coming to visit and showing him a photo of his former self: “‘I’m the bloke in this photo – dancing. I’m a runner, a soldier . . .’ and his voice faded and the smile crumpled into a sob.”
Subplots involving rebel leader Aktar, his new recruit Latif and Latif’s childhood friend Faridun offer different perspectives but are less engaging. Aktar’s zeal for the cause is only touched on, while Latif and Faridun’s friendship needs further fleshing out to deliver the required impact. It is Faridun’s father, Kushan, the village elder, who offers a glimpse into the mindset and hardships of the locals. Afraid to be seen to be helping the soldiers, Kushan is worried when Captain Barnes calls to his house. The local view on foreign aid is memorable: “He would want to do business quickly – like everything else they did. Fix it and then move on. Build, repair, leave.”
Insider’s accountThe objects that tell the characters’ stories are interesting in their own right. Some are upfront about what they are: “I am an olive-green thirty-litre day-sack.” Others read as Jeopardy-style riddles: “I was ugly and homemade, but I was complete – one part round, the other long and thin, both wrapped in plastic and tape and joined by a thin wire.” From bomb to bike, dog-tag to digital watch, they come to life through the author’s precision.
Parker joined the British Army when he was 23 and served in Iraq and Afghanistan. From Wiltshire, he is now a writer and artist and lives in London.
His insider’s account of life on the ground offers a compelling rendering of trauma and, particularly, the hard slog of recovery: “You put your foot out to stop yourself, but you had no foot and you dropped down onto your stump. It banged hard on the ground. The unnatural pain shot through the cut bone.”
When successful, the objective correlative formula should elicit an emotional reaction in the reader.
At times the book can waver more into reportage than fiction, interesting for its detail but less absorbing in its story.
The heart comes back in through Tom and his struggles, through his brutal honesty that strips the dulce et decorum out of war and lands the reader in reality: “You started pleading with them. Save me, please, you said again and again . . . There was nothing brave about this, no dignity. You were broken and utterly pathetic lying in the dust as they crouched by you and tried to stop you bleeding out.” Sarah Gilmartin is an arts journalist