BA5799 is a British soldier fighting a war in an ambiguously Middle Eastern country. The narrative jumps between his time before, during, and after his service, as well as the backstories of some of the people he encounters while abroad. The catch is, this isn’t just his story told by him – it’s told by everything around him. Rather, all the objects that he and others in his life encounter, use, manipulate, and interact with. It’s not BA5799 who tells us how it felt to fly to his assignment – it’s a round of ammunition. It’s his mother’s purse that tells us what happens when she visits him in the hospital after he has to come back home.
While this is certainly an interesting way to tell a story, I found that the actual execution of the idea fell flat. I was looking forward to hearing each object’s voice – how would a boot see the person wearing it differently than a $20 bill saw the person handling it? I was disappointed to discover that each object sounded the same – from virus to bike to gun to beer glass, each relayed its story in a flat, monotone recounting. While it was fun to try and guess what most of the objects were, even that was taken away from the reader sometimes – the author would come out and tell you what was talking. I also found the objects improbably insightful. While I’m willing to accept the notion that a prosthetic leg or a wheelbarrow can see and sense what’s going on around it, I’m less inclined to believe that these objects can also tell what people are thinking. I wanted to have to guess the characters’ thoughts from the objects’ observations; to have to infer that someone was worried by the way they clenched their fingers around the purse. Instead, the purse just knew that the person was worried and even why they’re worried. It knows the person’s backstory, thoughts, and feelings in a way that a purse couldn’t possibly know unless it was telepathic. Which, hey, maybe that was what the author was going for. But I found it to be a lot of ‘telling’, not ‘showing’, and it quickly grew tiresome.
It wasn’t all bad, though. I liked that the book was told in non-chronological order, which the author did ‘because that’s what it’s like to be blown up. I liked the idea of creating a puzzle with each chapter’ (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/26/anatomy-of-a-soldier-harry-parker-review). I also enjoyed experiencing the same scenes from multiple points of view. I appreciated that the narrative focused not just on our British soldier, but also on the people in the country in which he was fighting – from sympathizers to insurgents to those who just wanted what was best for their family. Being American, I also liked that it gave me some insight to the differences between British and American cultures, particularly what the media has told me is American military culture. But really, that was pretty much it. I wish this had been executed better; I wish I could recommend this book. But as it is, unless you’re absolutely dying for a war story, I’d stay away. The gimmick isn’t worth the time it takes to read the book.
Title: Anatomy of a Soldier
Author: Harry Parker
ISBN: 978-1101946633 (advanced reader’s copy)
Dates read: June 6-17, 2016
Rating: Two stars