I have read a lot of war fiction, especially the new wave that has been coming through in the last few years about Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a genre that, when done well, is visceral, shocking and gives you insight into experiences that are almost unimaginable. But it is also a genre that can easily slip into cliche, lessening its impact. Harry Parker takes a unique and unusual approach to his novel about war and in doing so sheds the burden of any cliche and gives the reader a whole new perspective of both sides of modern war and its repercussions.
Tom Barnes is a captain in the British Army in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. It is his job to lead a platoon on patrols and liaise with the local population as they deal with insurgents whose aim is to throw the foreign army out of their country. We follow Barnes as he tries to navigate through this world of IEDs and reprisals, where the mission and its outcomes are never clear. We also follow two local boys as one is drawn more and more into the insurgency and the two different paths they take which can’t help but intersect again. We also follow Barnes after he is wounded and his long and exhausting rehabilitation process to not only deal with his injuries but the civilian world he has returned to.
What sets this novel apart is the perspective Parker chooses to tell the story from. The novel is told from the point of view of 45 different objects. From a pair of army boots to a child’s bicycle, a bag of fertilizer to an IV drip. Parker uses these different objects to tell his three stories from every different angle and experience. This could easily go wrong or not last the length of a novel but Parker pulls it off partly due to how he structures the novel.
The story is not told in chronological order. Barnes’ story is mixed together. We start with him being wounded and move on to his recovery but this is mixed together with the beginning of his journey into war. The two boys’ story is also set on a different chronological line that is interwoven with Barnes’ timeline at different points in the novel. This may all sound like it gets confusing, which for a novel about war is not necessarily a bad thing, but Parker keeps everything together through the different perspectives. One of the devices he uses for this is to refer to Captain Tom Barnes only as his serial number, BA5799, before he is wounded. This has the added affect of making Barnes seem like just another instrument of war just like his boots, weapon, dog tags and helmet. After he is wounded, he is no longer a piece of army equipment and must become a person again.
Harry Parker has etched his name alongside the likes of Kevin Powers and Phil Klay in showing us the consequences of recent wars that don’t seem able to ever end. A powerful novel that not only gives you a new perspective on war but multiple perspectives.