Former Army officer Harry Parker is used to people doing a double take when they look at him. In July 2009 he was on foot patrol in Afghanistan when he stepped on a bomb. Six years and many operations later, he walks confidently on metal legs and has written an astonishing novel set in an unnamed conflict zone, Anatomy of a Soldier (Faber, March).
Parker always loved drawing and painting (he studied History of Art before joining the Army) but only started to write after he was injured: “I had to think about what to do. That was the thing that I held onto, maybe this is a big opportunity to do something else. I didn’t want to do reportage. A lot of military books are a bit, ‘I was in the Helmand valley and this is what it was like and the equipment was shit’, and I really didn’t want to do that.”
Nor did he want to write a memoir, feeling that a novel would allow for greater freedom and prevent him from feeling too defined or restricted by his own experiences. There are three strands in the novel. One shows the journey of Captain Tom Barnes towards his injury, one the aftermath, and the other looks at the local people, both those who run risks by co-operating with the ground forces and the insurgents who plant the bomb that blows Captain Tom up.
“I wanted it to stand on its own,” explains Parker. “To be a piece of fiction that’s a step away from myself. The most autobiographical bits are where Tom steps on the bomb. The recovery, the family—it’s not quite my family—the things that happen aren’t quite the same, but essentially I went through the rehab chain and learned to walk again. The soldiering bit is made up. The insurgent bits are made up.”
The story is told not by the characters but via 45 objects that surround them. We hear from the perspective of various bits of military and surgical equipment, from the trainer worn by an insurgent, a stash of dollars, the handbag Tom’s mother carries when she visits him, the medal he is awarded and the mirror in the rehab centre that sees Tom assess his changed body—he was unnatural, created by violence and saved by soldiers and medics; he had survived the unsurvivable, and it showed.
Parker loved the challenge of constructing the novel: “When I first started I showed it to my now wife and she said, ‘that’s a bit of a gimmick’, and I wanted to prove her wrong. I wanted it to be disorientating, so each time you read a chapter you don’t know where you are in time and space. I wanted to make it feel like being blown up—that was the whole point of it. You wake up and think, ‘where am I?’”
The conflict zone is unnamed, but inspired as much by Parker’s time in Iraq as the time he spent serving in Afghanistan. He also wanted to show the perspective of the local people: “It’s about any conflict. When you are deployed to these places you do a lot of reading to try to understand and not make too many mistakes. When you are there you think a lot about the enemy, all the people around you. You see them, you chat, you have those sorts of encounters. But you don’t really know them.”
He drew on his own memory to describe the injury and read medical journals and watched YouTube clips of amputations to understand everything that happened when he was unconscious. The result is that the reader gains an intense insight into every aspect of what it feels like to be so damaged by war, from the medical practicalities, to the well-meaning clumsiness of friends and the occasional flashes of black humour shared on the ward with other amputees, who tally up the number of lost limbs in a long-running competition with the neighbouring bay.
Parker is unsure about whether his novel can be categorised as an anti-war book: “I never wrote it like that. I’m not anti-Army or anti-serving but any war novel will be anti-war because it’s a rubbish activity to be involved in. I’ve never felt angry about what happened to me. As soon as it happened I just wanted to get back to some level of normality, to achieve things again. I don’t feel angry, I just feel sad. But you are a soldier, you go to war, it’s one of those things that could happen. You accept the fact, but you think it’s never going to happen to you.”
For a long time Parker found it difficult to be stared at, but he found London the best place to be, as so many people are different in some way: “In London you are just one of the freaks. I’ve got much better about ignoring it and seeing it as a part of who I am. It’s one of the reasons I wear shorts. There’s only so many times you can put up with people asking why you are parking in a disabled space. Also, if I’m carrying three pints across the pub, I need a bit more time and space. Please don’t knock me over on the Tube. Please don’t crash into me.”
Once decided on the structure, the writing came fairly easily and Parker enjoyed it, treating it as a day job and not allowing himself to believe in the possibility of writer’s block. He manages his dyslexia by accepting that the punctuation will have to go in afterwards, and refusing to think of it as a problem. “I’m never going to see grammatical errors, my brain just doesn’t work like that,” he says. “When I write I open up a visual world and I just describe it in words . . . When I’m in bed thinking about the characters, I walk them around the world, test them out, see what happens when they go in there. It’s very visual for me. The words are more important as time goes on, but the words describe exactly what I’m seeing in my imagination.”
He did occasionally question his choice of subject matter: “At times I wondered if it was the right thing to do. Am I falling straight into that trap of being defined by my injuries, being defined by being a professional injured person? I really didn’t want to be that. Hopefully the book does it in a way that avoids that.”
It’s certainly an achievement and does what the best books all seem to do: take something specific to illuminate the universal. It’s also surprisingly hopeful. The fact that Parker spares us none of the hardships undergone by Captain Tom makes his survival and his ability to accept his new body all the more remarkable.
Parker reflects on the nature of hope in a time of destruction and chaos: “In conflict zones sometimes these terrible things happen on beautiful days and—this is going to sound corny—although you see the worst of mankind, you also see some pretty amazing things.”
This article originally appeared in The Bookseller magazine of 8th January 2016.
Picture: © Gemma Day