Anatomy of a Soldier
by Harry Parker
A review by John Gaye (first published in the Sherborne Times)
This is one of the most extraordinary novels I have read this year; it is also extremely readable. Tom Barnes, the main subject of this story, is an army officer in an infantry regiment on operations in a faraway country that bears a remarkable similarity to Afghanistan (although it is never specified). Quite early in the narrative he is blown up by an IED, evacuated through the medical system and ends up in Selly Oak military hospital near Birmingham.
Not exactly coincidentally this is also the back-story of the author. Harry Parker was an officer in the Rifles who happened to follow a parallel path to Tom Barnes, ending up with 2 prosthetic legs and a very different life style to what he had enjoyed before being deployed.
What makes this book so extraordinary is the style of the writing. It is written throughout in the first person and the narrator varies from chapter to chapter but is always some form of inanimate object. It sounds weird but it works. It does not irritate the reader as I thought it would.
This form of writing allows the author to treat the whole brutal, savage but authentically touching story dispassionately. Harry himself in a radio interview stated that his intention was to write around this hugely traumatic period without allowing sympathy or emotion to cloud the events as they unfurl.
But it also allows him to explore the minds of all the characters involved, ranging from his family, through the various medical staff to the individuals who were ‘the enemy’ and who put in place the IED. Here the enemy characters have names, family lives and their own reasons for what they set out to do. Nothing in this, or any other, war is black and white and writing in this unique style brings home the humanity of all those involved. It brings out the vulnerability of those who serve on operations, their frailties and fears that are rarely spoken about, let alone written about so sympathetically.
Not least this story is 100% authentic – in the language soldiers use, in the atmosphere in which they live and operate, in the relationships that keep them sane and motivated and not least it is authentic in all the procedures, both medical and military, which are outlined in such detail.
It provides a unique insight into the mind of someone who has been seriously injured in action. Such soldiers do not regard themselves as heroes, neither do they wish to be idolised by the public. But they do wish to rebuild their lives and to re-enter society as a useful person with a future.
In Tom Barnes there is no hint of self-pity. I feel certain that is the case too of the author. It is as if he is saying: “stuff happens, get on with life”.