Monday 21 December 2015

Anatomy of a Soldier

I first became aware of the author Harry Parker when he featured in an evening of readings by Faber authors earlier this year. The star turn that night was Edna O'Brien (the only human being I've ever seen who is literally dazzling), supported by Eimear McBride (reading from her forthcoming second novel The Lesser Bohemians, clearly delighted to be sharing the stage with her literary mentor). The line-up  also included Viv Albertine (late of The Slits and reading from her iPad) and a chap (whose name escaped me), a nephew of the critic I. A. Richards who had written a book about mountaineering. Harry Parker, first up, read from his unpublished novel Anatomy of a Soldier.

The Critics' Samurai Code is  unambiguous: books should never be reviewed before they are published, and reviews never circulated before they appear in print or online. Our leading literary organs generally abide by that and so do I, so what follows is not a review but a sort of drum-beating pre-view, and certainly not the first to appear. (I cleared permission with the author's agent before writing this blog). There's been a discernible buzz surrounding this book for some months now and for once the hyperbole is entirely justified because Anatomy of a Soldier is one of the most brilliant debut novels you're ever likely to read.

It's an unapologetically experimental work and a far cry from the Andy McNab school. The first-person narration (although the term itself is hardly the right description of what the author has achieved) comes from a series of inanimate objects: a rifle, some medical gauze, an army boot, a bag of fertilzer, a prosthetic limb and so on. Each object is imbued with a degree of consciousness and insight (although never quite amounting to self-consciousness) and each object delivers an eloquent, necessarily partial (in both senses) account of its role in an emerging catastrophe. I can't begin to tell you how incredibly impressive this is - the cumulative effect is harrowing, convincing and profoundly satisfying. Parker served in Iraq in 2007 and Afghanistan in 2009 and clearly knows what he's talking about and he understands the vital importance of a soldier's kit and of bantering camaraderie. He doesn't aestheticise the experience of war but renders it directly and with complete conviction in an arrestingly original way. It's hardly a just comparison but the last time I read an avant-garde account of conflict this powerful and persuasive it was Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.

The central character, Captain Tom Barnes, is horribly injured by an explosive device in an unspecified country and Parker's novel explores in penetrating, clear-eyed detail this traumatic event and Barnes's subsequent treatment and rehabilitation. The fragments build up a lucid and coherent account while the narrative perspective shifts between Barnes, his fellow soldiers and the local insurgents. This is gripping and rewarding. It extends the range of the novel.

When I heard the author read a few pages that evening my immediate reaction (since amended) was that such ingenuity, however well executed, would be unlikely to sustain the reader's interest at novel length. The danger, I thought, was that the approach would sooner or later degenerate into a simple guessing game in which the reader, having identified (as it were) 'the mystery object', would be tempted to skip to the next section, and that while that might offer some ludic satisfaction it would not amount to a coherent fiction. I'm happy to admit I was quite wrong.

I received an advance copy a week later and having read it in (as they say) a single mesmerised sitting realised that what I'd heard at the Faber reading was representative but not typical (if you see what I mean). Anatomy of a Soldier is  potent, compassionate, visceral and necessary. It knocked the stuffing out of this reader and will certainly be one of the great works of fiction published in 2016. 

Anatomy of a Soldier will be published in the UK by Faber and Faber in 2016.

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