“I am testing your patience” – Anatomy of a Soldier by Harry Parks

aoashpI am a book review, my purpose is to critique books. I am on a website. I am also a really tired writing form that even now, in the third sentence, is testing your patience. I am the majority of Anatomy of a Soldier.

As readers, we’ve been faced with a number of absolutely stellar books and novels on the Iraq/Afghanistan conflict over the past decade, from Imperial Life in the Emerald City, to Kevin Powers’ masterful The Yellow Birds, war has led to some dazzling works of literature.

Harry Parker’s novel fascinates and infuriates in equal measure, not least because it’s so close to belonging in that list above. There are passages of genuine beauty, some brilliantly taut set-pieces, and several moments which demonstrate some of the best writing I’ve read in the past few years. Then there’s the central conceit, which threatens, at almost every single stage, to derail the narrative.

If you haven’t been made aware of it yet, Parker’s novel is a semi-autobiographical story of a soldier who loses both legs in an explosion, told from the perspective of forty-five different objects, each of whom narrates their own chapter. So we get the perspective of a handbag, of a wheelchair, of a dollar bill, of a bag of fertiliser – you get the idea. For Parker, it’s a way of distancing himself from the events that happened to him, allowing him to discuss war and injury in a way that he perhaps couldn’t before. That’s fine, and makes for an interesting exercise. But, as a novel? It doesn’t work quite as well.

For one, the objects often don’t have much of an impact in the story; their purpose is to be an object which accompanies the characters throughout their particular journey in the chapter (a handbag is useful because a character can carry it throughout her day). For another, some of the objects are really annoying. A dollar bill introduces itself as being, “On one side of me is printed the image of a man; he died in 1845. On the other, a Palladian building with white columns and a country’s name in a scroll above.” Why it has to be so cryptic is never really discussed, nor is why some objects are able to see into character’s heads and read their thoughts, whilst others are curiously distant.

There are several interesting touches – like how each military related object only sees the lead character as a soldier’s army number, rather than by name, emphasising his own position as another object in the novel. Or how some chapters use the object as a brilliant narrative device: a bag of fertiliser being carried from a market to a checkpoint before being stolen by terrorists and forming part of a bomb. It’s in these sequences when the novel really hits its stride, and it’s a shame that the reason some later chapters don’t engage the reader as much as they should is because the stylistic devices employed by the novel almost invariably stop you from fully immersing yourself in the world.

Any Cop? Almost. As an experiment in fiction, and for a debut novelist, this is definitely worth checking out, but just wary that you won’t come out of it half as impressed as you think you will.

 

Daniel Carpenter


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