Review: Anatomy of a Soldier by Harry Parker

9780571325825 (1)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.

Buy the book here…

Review: Youngblood by Matt Gallagher

9781501105746I have had this book on my radar for a while despite the book not being published until February next year. Matt Gallagher was one of the editors and contributors to an impressive collection of war stories, Fire And Forget, which featured a number of top writers including David Abrams and National Book Award winner Phil Klay. At the time of reading it I knew each writer in that collection was somebody worth looking out for and I have yet to be proven wrong. So the moment I heard Matt Gallagher had a forthcoming novel I was on the lookout for it.

The United States has been at war for over a decade. And like previous conflicts out of the tragedy and horror there has been some incredible books written and published. Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds and Phil Klay’s Redeployment have been outstanding achievements in fiction and will be classics for generations to come. Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, David Abrams’ Fobbit and Michael Pitre’s Fives And Twenty-Fives have each added to this list of powerful, satirical and insightful works of literature examining war in the 21st century. And now there is Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood to add to this list.

Youngblood is very different from the above mentioned novels mainly because it is about a very different Iraq War. The narrator of the book is Lieutenant Jack Porter, who is leading a platoon of men in the last stages of the war. America is nearing the end of its involvement in Iraq with the new Iraqi Army being trained to takeover. Porter’s war is mainly dealing with the internal power struggles of the town surrounding his outpost, paying off local men and appeasing those whose lives have been affected by the ongoing violence in their country. It is his job to keep a lid on the fragile peace that has been eked out by those who have come before him, including his older brother.

Porter’s war is as dreary as the hot desert weather until he is assigned Sergeant Chambers, a veteran of a different time in Iraq who brings a new attitude to Jack’s platoon. He also brings with him his past reputation in the town they are stationed. Jack is determined to be rid of his new Sergeant and begins his own investigation into Chambers and his past in their area of operations. A past that swirls with rumours of civilian killings and an AWOL American soldier. A past that threatens to reignite the violence and reprisals that had appeared to be almost over.

Porter is determined to do one good thing in the war while at the same time making sure he can get all his men home and at times he is not sure he can do either. Porter must grapple with the complexities of a war that has not been clear for a very long time. Which is made less clear by the coming of an arbitrary end point that is meaningless to those who are involved and those who are caught in the middle.

Matt Gallagher expertly weaves together an intricate mystery and a tragic love story with the everlasting contradictions and hypocrisy of modern warfare. Compelling and insightful this is another great work of fiction about the Iraq War.

Buy the book here…

Top 10 War Novels: A Response

You might have seen the great post by Jon Page entitled My Top 10 War Novels. Like most people I was entertained and added more books to my ever growing ‘to be read’ list. I was also thinking about all the great war novels that were missed; in fact I made a mental list of my favourite war novels and we share no books in common. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers just missed my top 10 but that was the closest common book I found. What I enjoy about war novels is exploring the human connection, the struggle with the horrors of war and its aftermath. So I thought as a response to Jon Page’s post here are some great war novels that were missed.

10. Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone dog soldiers

This cult novel seems to capture a unique mood of Americans during the Vietnam War. This book deals with some different themes, not just the war and its effect on America, but it takes a look at counter culture, drug trafficking and the corruptibility of authority.

the narrow road to the deep north9. Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

I feel an Australian perspective is needed on the list and Flanagan offered a great option last year. This book focuses on not just the cruelty of war and its after effects but the impossibility of love, especially when so damaged.

8. Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding painter of silence

This novel looks at Post World War II Romania under the brutal Stalinist regime. This looks at the devastation war had on Romania, providing not only hopelessness and despair but also great beauty. This is a novel that feels like a piece of art and yet it still managed to capture the mental and physical burdens of the characters living in this post-war town.

Maus7. Maus by Art Spiegelman 

This graphic novel tells the story of a Jewish family living and surviving in Hitler’s Europe. This offers a unique perspective of a type of story that has been told time and time again. Maus is also the only graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize.

People of Forever are not Afraid6. People of Forever are not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu 

This is the story of three normal Israeli girls who go from passing notes in school, talking about boys to turning eighteen and being conscripted into the army. For the most, this book is about a perpetual state of war.  The conflict between Israel and Lebanon still puts them into real danger, it is here we explore the idea of self-discovery when they are thrown into such an extreme situation.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk5. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain 

This entire book really showed the disconnection between the military and civil life in the modern day. American wants revenge for 9/11 but they are not willing to sacrifice some like a Thanksgiving football game for it. This is a powerful book in the same vain as Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse-Five.

Constellation of Vital Phenomena4. Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra 

Chechnya is in a fragile state due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1991) followed by the Chechen-Ingush ASSR split (1992). This novel takes place during the second Chechen War. This is a beautiful novel of human connection and the struggles found in an abused country. This was one of the best novels of 2013 (for me anyway).

catch 223. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller 

This satirical masterpiece is a novel I’ll never forget; it was surprisingly funny but also remained insightful. This novel talks about the mental suffering caused from war but also the absurdity that can be found in bureaucratic operation and reasoning.

war and peace2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy 

This Russian classic depicts the French invasion of Russia in 1812. True to Tolstoy form, War and Peace also looks at classes and the impact of the Napoleonic invasion on the Tsarist society. One of the things I love about Tolstoy’s writing is the way he looks at a situation as a whole; he had a unique ability to capture the lives of everyone involved in one war.

slaughterhouse-five1. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

This story just has so many layers to try to explain, but it makes for an interesting read. Billy keeps randomly traveling to the Past, Future and a planet called Tralfamadore; this may seem weird but this classic really captures the effects of war on its survivors and the mental scaring it causes.

My Top 10 War Novels

There has been a resurgence in war novels in recent years as veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq return from the conflict and begin to try and make sense of what they have experienced and what the future holds for themselves. I am a huge fan of war fiction. Fiction about war I find is so much more powerful than non fiction. Non fiction is limited by facts and hindsight. In the case of biography it is limited to one point of view (which is also often the case with some history books). Fiction however has no such limits. Fiction can go inside the heads of people, in can give us both sides of the conflict, in can be in the ‘here and now’ or it can be reflective and it can trigger an emotional response rarely found in non fiction. 2014 has delivered another two wonderful books about what it is like to go to war, Redeployment by Phil Klay and Fives And Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre, so I thought I would list my Top 10:

10. Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden9780143037071

Just pipping Birdsong this fantastic novel is about two Native Canadian friends who are  both expert sharpshooters and, using the field craft they learned hunting in the forests of Hudson Bay, quickly become accomplished snipers on the Western Front. However the horrors of the war will not only test their courage and sanity but also their friendship.

97814088544579. Five And Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre

War is never one-sided. It is all-encompassing and personally harrowing. Pitre has captured this aspect of war with compassion, complexity and clarity. It maybe a cliche to say that this is an important book about war that we should all read but it is only a cliche because it is true. We can’t understand a war until we have seen all its sides and Michael Pitre’s powerful debut novel is the first to explorer the pain and destruction wreaked on both sides of this long and different war.

8. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien9780006543947

The way Tim O’Brien blends fact and fiction, short stories and a long narrative is breathtaking in its scope and emotional resonance. There is a reason why this is considered an absolute classic.

7. Fields Of Fire by James Webb

9780553583854Webb presents the war in all its twisted glory and shame but without breaking the bond the reader quickly develops with the lead characters. You are immersed in the jungle and its claustrophobia, the monotony and futility of life as a soldier and the fear and insanity of being in combat.

6. Regeneration by Pat Barker

9780241969144Easily the finest novel about the First World War. Barker’s novel is set in Scotland and explorers the effects of shell-shock and the experimental means of treating it. Featuring Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen this a powerful psychological portrait of the effects of war and what it takes to return to the frontlines.

5. City of Thieves by David Benioff

9780340977392Captures the absurdity of war perfectly. Set during the Nazis’ siege ofLeningrad the futility of war is explored through an absurd life or death mission. In a city that has been cut off from the outside world, a 17-year-old boy and a Red Army deserter, must survive the starving, shell-ravaged city and the dangerous, lawless countryside in search of a dozen eggs for the wedding cake of a Russian Colonel’s daughter.

4. Redeployment by Phil Klay

9780857864239This collection of short stories is unlike anything you have read before. Each story examines a different part of the decade long war in Iraq. From coming home to staying behind, from soldiers to civilians and all the chaos that war can cause.

3. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

The Yellow Birds is gut-wrenchingly beautiful. Which sounds odd for a novel about war but Kevin Powers is able to evocatively 9781444756142capture not only what is happening to the physical landscape of the novel but also the mental landscape. I have never read a book that captures the disintegration of humanity but also the power of humanity quite like The Yellow Birds.

2. Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

This isn’t a war novel about heroes. It is not a war novel about politics. Although both are factors throughout the s9781848874961tory. This is not about why America was in Vietnam, because the characters in the story didn’t get a choice in the matter. This is about men and boys who experience something that changes them forever and it is about societies that will change forever. It is about war, but the biggest battles are those that the men of Bravo Company have to fight with each other and themselves

1. The Thin Red Line by James Jones

I have not read another book that comes close to the raw emotion displayed in this novel. The vast 9780141393247array of characters, from PFCs to Colonels, gave a unique insight into the life and experience not only of an individual soldier but an army company as a whole. Charlie Company was a character in the book and the ridge they had to take was a ‘dancing elephant’ that was alive and violent.

What are your favourite war novels?