Anatomy of a Soldier by Harry Parker

Harry Parker is a British former soldier who lost both his legs after stepping on a bomb in 2009. Anatomy of a Soldier is his debut novel; as it begins, Captain Tom Barnes takes a similar misstep of his own. The voice telling us about this belongs not to Barnes, but to the tourniquet carried in his trouser pocket:

At 0618 on 15 August, when I was sliding alongside BA5799’s thigh, I was lifted into the sky and turned over. And suddenly I was in the light. There was dust and confusion and shouting. I was on the ground beside him. He was face down; he was incomplete. I was beside him as rocks and mud fell around us.

Each chapter of Parker’s book is narrated by an object, from the saw used to amputate Barnes’s leg, to one of the trainers worn by Latif, a boy being trained to fight the foreign soldiers. The novel switches between these different spheres of experiences: Barnes’s military service; his treatment and rehabilitation; and the lives of Latif and other inhabitants of his (unnamed) country.

Parker’s approach turns Anatomy of a Soldier into an overlapping composite: with each chapter, you have to reorient yourself to a different situation, and sometimes you’ll see the same event from multiple angles. There’s also a strong sense that, just as each chapter is an isolated point in a larger matrix, so the characters are participants in a larger drama, affected (one might say manipulated) by the system of war (or medicine) in ways beyond their individual control. This, I find, is one of the most effective aspects of the novel.

The key aspect of Anatomy of a Soldier which falls a little short for me is where the object-narrators report the actions and thoughts of humans, or describe in the manner of a typical literary narrator. My problem is not that I think it’s ‘unrealistic’ for inanimate objects to do these things (after all, the only ‘reality’ in the book is that created by Parker’s words), but that it brings the novel too close to coherence and convention. The chapters feel that bit less fragmentary, the narrative that bit less distinctive. In a way, the book starts to work against the very effect for which it has seemed to reach . But there’s an interesting idea here, and quite an engaging novel.

4 Comments

  1. I picked this up in a bookshop today and read the first couple of pages. I think it’s a very interesting idea and want to read it but wondered if the idea of each object talking directly to the reader might run out of steam a bit over the course of the whole book.

  2. It does sound very interesting. Is it then that sometimes the object-narrators slip into being omniscient narrators? I can see how that might be an issue. Still, even if it fails in that respect I’d far rather a failure born of ambition than a failure born of caution.

    • They do become omniscient narrators of a sort, yes – though I gather that Parker set himself some ground rules, such as that the objects would only be able to report the thoughts of a human character who was touching them. I don’t have a problem with that conceptually; it’s a question of how it plays out in the reading.

      As you say, though, the book’s ambition is what really counts. In a way, I’m being tougher on this novel because I appreciated what it was doing – had I liked it less, I may not have written about it or even finished it. But I guess that’s the way it goes.

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