THIS is an uncomfortable and unforgettable book. Harry Parker is a former Army officer who was severely wounded in Afghanistan, in 2009. Anatomy of a Soldier is the story of Captain Tom Barnes, his war, and his recovery after an improvised explosive device (IED) shatters his body. It is devastatingly clear that the emotions and trauma in the book are personal and heartfelt. Parker has written a highly autobiographical novel, which is soaked in his lived reality. It stays with you afterwards as a sharp and searing hymn to endurance and courage.
Barnes loves his vocation. He is serious about leading his soldiers well, about his mission, and about his own skills and fitness. Before he flies out to fight, he describes the pleasure that he finds in running to break in his new boots: “He was strong and his breathing was still measured as we pounded on. The fitter he was, the harder he could fight and the longer we could survive.” Later on, Barnes feels something of the same pleasure and fulfilment when he first walks on his prosthetic limbs after long months of operations, treatment, and physiotherapy.
Each of the 45 chapters in the book is told from the point of view of an object: the fertiliser used in the bomb, the helmet that Barnes wears in action, the map that he follows obsessively, the bag of blood infused into him after he is injured, a snowball that he throws as his recovery accelerates, and so on. This might sound like a gimmick, or an exercise in creative writing designed to help Parker’s healing, but it builds into a compelling collage. A clear narrative emerges from the pieces scattered by the bomb.
This chorus of voices highlights the importance of having the right physical equipment as a soldier. It matters infinitely to Barnes that his boots fit (and that his prosthetic legs fit). Equipment matters just as much when the medics fight to keep him alive, and then on the long journey back to health. That Barnes’s story is told through the objects that he relies on and the objects that shape his story (even down to the spore that poisons his “good” leg), reflects how completely a soldier is engaged with, and dependent on, the world around him.
It is Barnes’s story, but it is also the story of Faridun, the precious son of a community leader in a village near the British army base. His childhood friend Latif, is fighting against the occupiers, and Faridun’s instinctive act of compassion for an injured fighter leads directly to his death in an air strike. The conversation that follows his death in these events is harrowing.
To Barnes and Faridun and their families these events are everything, but they would never have made the news in Britain. We heard something of the lives of the 456 men and women from the Armed Forces who died in Afghanistan, but little of those who were severely injured and spent long months and years fighting to win back as much independence as they could.
Parker writes with such honesty that Anatomy of a Soldier never feels voyeuristic. We cannot pity someone who is as driven and accepting as Barnes. He invites us to travel with him down a road that he hoped never to see, but only as his guests. We witness his emotions, but the gap between his loss and where we live, comfortable, secure, is too great for us to cross. Empathy is not possible, and sympathy is not required.
In fact, outsiders receive a harsh press in the book, represented in a conversation in a pub by an intrusive drinker, who says that he would never let his son join the army, and by a friend who tells Barnes that he would have killed himself if he had been wounded as badly as Barnes. It is a scene that asks difficult questions of all who speak too quickly and listen too little — which, at times, might be all of us.
There are many heroes in this book. Some of them are ideas: the human spirit, medical advances, and the healing that can emerge through art and writing. Human love is another: the wonderful support of Barnes’s parents and brother points to the importance of relationships and love in our enduring of the limitations of the flesh, however they arise.
Much of the heroism is found in individual lives. Parker has Barnes say: “I wouldn’t change what happened to me. Life’s changed and it’s been grim, but I’m experiencing so much.” Barnes survives to say that — Faridun does not. It feels fitting that Parker saves his most delicate and sympathetic portrait for Kushan Hhan, the father of Faridun. If we know little about those wounded in Afghanistan, we know even less of the people of that country.
After we have read the last page, and weeks later, we are left with two echoes: of Barnes’s enduring courage, and Hhan’s silent and crushing grief.
The Revd Richard Lamey is the Rector of St Paul’s, Wokingham, in Berkshire.
ANATOMY OF A SOLDIER — SOME QUESTIONS
- Anatomy of a Soldier is largely written in the second person. How does this affect your experience of reading the book?
- Are there clear villains, or clear heroes, in Anatomy of a Soldier?
- Did the use of inanimate objects as narrators make the story more literally objective, in your opinion?
- Does it make a difference to your reading that the author also lost both legs after a similar experience to Tom Barnes’s?
- Where does “self” end and “body” begin for Barnes? What did you make of the blurred line between human bodies and inanimate objects in the book?
- Does war make objects of soldiers and people?
- Barnes struggles to feel compassion when faced with Faridun’s death, instead feeling only discomfort and “the loss of a potential asset”. Why might this be?
- Harry Parker has described losing his legs as similar to “losing someone you really loved”. In what ways does he express a version of this grief in the novel?
- The protagonist is referred to variously as “BA5799”, “the captain”, “Tom”, “Sir”, “Boss”, “fella”, and “mate”. What effect does naming have in the novel?
- Is this a political novel?
Anatomy of a Soldier by Harry Parker is published by Faber & Faber at £7.99 (Church Times Bookshop £7.20); 978-0-5713-2583-2.
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 2 March, we will print extra information about our next book. This is The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett. It is published by Vintage Classics at £10.99; 978-0-0995-9535-9.
The Old Wives’ Tale, published in 1908, was an immediate popular and critical success. Set in Bursley, Staffordshire (after Burslem, where Bennett spent his youth), and in Paris, it follows the divergent lives of two sisters from late childhood to old age. While Constance marries the apprentice at her father’s drapery shop, her impetuous, rebellious younger sister, Sophia, elopes, and moves to Paris. Bennett’s narration of the parallel life stories is shaped not only by his focus on the passions and complexities underlying so-called “ordinary lives”, but also by his focus on the tension between old and new generations, and on the ceaseless arrival of modernity.
Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) was born and raised in the Potteries district of Staffordshire: the area that would inspire many of his novels. The son of a solicitor, Bennett twice failed his own legal exams before moving to London in 1889. Here, he turned to a literary career. An admirer of Maupassant, Zola, and Flaubert, he moved to Paris in 1903, where he lived for nearly a decade. Although best known as a novelist, Bennett was also a successful playwright, essayist, and journalist, and, in 1918, worked as Director of Propaganda for France at the Ministry of Information. Bennett died of typhoid in 1931.
Books for the next two months:
April: Tregian’s Ground by Anne Cuneo
May: Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout