I am a tourniquet, a bullet, a boot, a mother’s handbag, the saw that cut off one leg, the home-made bomb that blew off another in Afghan fields; I am a catheter tube, an emergency call button; a bicycle, a helmet, a prosthetic limb, a drone: I am an inanimate object, one of the collection of narrators used with stunning effect to tell the story of Captain Tom Barnes, the fictional platoon commander in Harry Parker’s searing debut novel, Anatomy of a Soldier.
The reader should be prepared to hit the ground and move fast. In paragraph five of page one, at 06:18 on 15 August, Captain Barnes – known only as zap number BA5799 by the tourniquet in his left thigh pocket – is blown up by an improvised explosive device while returning from patrol.
He is in southern Afghanistan, but the tourniquet in his pocket, like the other narrators here, does not know the names of places and so feels its way through the eight weeks, two days and four hours of BA5799’s deployment as a series of noises, engine sounds, cries and explosions, until the moment it is lifted into the sky, then dropped to the ground amid dust and shouting. Beside the tourniquet lies BA5799: “He was face down; he was incomplete.”
It is not just that the author’s device in telling the story through impersonal objects gives Parker’s writing a unique quality, nor that the spare beauty of his style bolts the reader to each sentence with mechanical intimacy. There is something far bigger going on behind these pages.
Anatomy of a Soldier is a great novel: a defining work about a place beyond survival, where the terribly damaged succeed not just in living and adapting, but in bringing illumination back from the abyss. It will be read with wonder, with respect and with gratitude.
Only a wounded soldier could have written this book. The blurb on the cover never mentions that Barnes’s fate was Parker’s. Yet Anatomy of a Soldier is the author’s own story. The figure lying “bent and covered in rock and dirt with body parts twisted or missing”, pleading to be saved, biting the arm of a stretcher-bearer in pain, is Parker, who was horribly injured by an IED while serving as an officer in the Rifles in Helmand in 2009. Some of the narrative is fictionalised, as in the imagined parallel story of Latif, the young Taliban apprentice who plants the bomb that Barnes treads upon. But Latif is no less credible for that, and the reader will turn the pages describing Barnes’s fate – the loss of one leg in an explosion, the removal of the other, infected and ravaged, on the operating table, his subsequent struggle to survive – knowing simply that “all this happened”.
I met Harry Parker once, in a war. In 2007, before his tour of Afghanistan, he was a platoon commander based in Basra Palace, at the fag end of the British deployment to the Iraqi city. His battalion, 4 Rifles, had been left fighting on, alone, for not much more reason than its pride. Even the Foreign Office had abandoned the palace.
While I was embedded there, a friend of mine, the photographer Richard Mills, spent time with Parker’s platoon, which was on Quick Reaction Force duty at the time and sped out of the palace each time it was mortared – which was often – in an effort to hit the Iranian-trained mortar crews before they moved position. At night, in the brain-numbing humidity of that summer, they drove out to fight in the streets.
Parker was widely liked among his peers and admired by the riflemen. Even then, as a relatively young man, he wore his command easily, knew what mattered and what did not, and was up for a laugh. Afghanistan claimed many other men of his kind, junior officers who in a short time were far more battle experienced than their generals had ever been, and on whom were placed huge responsibilities in terrible places.
Richard Mills had already died in Africa by the time Harry Parker was blown up a couple of years later. I felt the news of Parker’s injuries as a quick rabbit punch, and so, at first, I was uneasy about reviewing his book. Supposing it wasn’t any good?
I needn’t have worried.
I recognised some of Parker’s chosen narrators: in 2009 I had seen that oscillating saw cut what was left of the legs from a young British soldier in Helmand. Above the waist he looked like a young god; below it, a mockery. “Let’s tidy him up,” the surgeon had said as the saw buzzed. I remembered 2007, when Richard Mills was alive and hundreds of British soldiers – later maimed or killed in Afghanistan for no discernible good – were still whole.
I doubt, however, that Anatomy of a Soldier will have any different effect on strangers to war. Barnes is courageous, sharing the darkest of moments, in which he wishes he had not survived. We learn of the blood in his semen from a ripped testicle, and the poignancy of the battalion’s post-tour medals parade in which Barnes stands painfully on his prosthetics, watching his riflemen march away and knowing “he would never feel part of them again”.
Cliché gets predictably short shrift. “You lads are so brave,” an admiring civilian says to Barnes in a pub, having noticed his artificial legs. “Not brave,” the soldier replies. “Just trod on the wrong piece of ground.”
Yet he is brave. Anyone can get blown up. It is what happens afterwards that defines courage, and as the book progresses, Parker’s story becomes one not simply of survival but of hard-won spiritual and physical triumph. By the closing pages, he is no longer a maimed man, but the legitimate heir to his life and place in the world.
Remembering times and wars past, I thought about writing to congratulate Parker on his book, but stopped myself. His final narrator is one of the pair of running blades that carries Barnes sprinting around a park. Parker has reached a place where he does not need praise from outsiders.
Anthony Loyd is a war correspondent for the Times. Harry Parker appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 10 April
Anatomy of a Soldier by Harry Parker is published by Faber & Faber (314pp, £14.99)
This article appears in the 24 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash