One double-edged sword in book blogging has been my discovery of Netgalley. Netgalley is great, it gives bloggers the opportunity to use a middle-man when pestering publishers for preview copies of books. Netgalley is powerful, it sends such books directly to your e-reader with no postage or shelf-space issues to worry about. Netgalley is starting to take over my life, it allows me, with the simple click of a button, to request an endless number of books.
Of course, this is all very self-indulgent moaning. I love reading, I love reviewing books. Having too much of a good thing is really not that big of a problem. On the other hand, it does put pressure on my blogging schedule because there are loads of other, older, books that I really want to cover. Also, it’s always a gamble requesting new publications when, on principle, I try to steer clear of having to write negative reviews. That being said, I still acquired two promising debut novels to review this month (one because of the description, the other because it had been mentioned in The Guardian’s 2016 literary calendar).
The Guardian gave me my introduction to ‘Anatomy of a Soldier’: ‘this remarkable debut by a former soldier who served in Iraq and Afghanistan takes us through the horrific bomb injury and slow rehabilitation of a British captain – as narrated by 45 different inanimate objects, from boots to medals, fertiliser bags to medical equipment.’ I was intrigued; to some extent, this sounds like a creative writing exercise, on the other hand, how many creative writing exercises get promoted by The Guardian? There was only one way to find out.
Parker brings skill and sensitivity to his novel, making the whole much stronger than the premise suggests. Each narrative section is short, allowing the story to progress without getting bogged down in the conceit. Also, the nature of the inanimate objects provides an important commentary on transience and permanence which underlies the conflict setting of the story. Some items, such as the tourniquet who tells us the first part of the story, are thrown away and burnt after use. Others, like the soldier’s bed, will outlive the events of the novel: ‘After a few weeks, another man arrived to take his place and the rhythm continued. When he left, other came and I supported them one after the other. They were excited at first, apprehensive as they struggled to understand, sometimes disillusioned or resigned and always superstitious in the weeks before they were replaced.
Much later, after they’d gone and the sun had bleached my cloth, other men started to use me. They spoke another language and their uniform was different and they didn’t think of this as a far off country.‘
At its best, this is a striking and powerful meditation on war and power. One thing missing from the blurb is the fact that not all of the narrative items are concerned with the British soldier (frequently referred to by his serial number). Others belonging to the native population, terrorists, collaborators and those trying to live their lives outside of the conflict. I found the book surprisingly nuanced when exploring this foreign community, ironically, they are brought to life with more individuality and conviction than the every-man soldier BA5799. It will be interesting to see what Parker writes in the future; as a former soldier he certainly has an interesting perspecitve on modern conflict and as a writer he has the ability to turn this into genuinely thought-provoking fiction.
For a more detailed exploration of the novel I highly recommend Elle’s review at ellethinks.
Also out this month is Gabriel Packard’s debut novel, ‘The Painted Ocean.’ Forgetting the title, I was drawn to this book because of the premise: “When I was a little girl, my dad left me and my mum, and he never came back. And you’re supposed to be gutted when that happens. But secretly I preferred it without him, cos it meant I had my mum completely to myself without having to share her with anyone.” Shruti is obsessive and isolated (she and her mother are ‘the only Asian people in our town’), and I think I was reminded of Tasha Kavanagh’s disturbing novel ‘Things We Have In Common’ (reviewed here). In fact, Shruti is also going to form an uncomfortable relationship with a popular school-mate, Meena, but unlike the claustrophobia of Kavanagh’s novel, Packard is telling a far more sweeping story, crossing oceans as psychological tension gives way to melodramatic thriller fare.
Some of my problems with the novel may have stemmed from my expectations, because this is not a realistic coming-of-age story, no matter what the first chapters may imply. Half way through, it moves into a very different genre; but by then, my patience was already wearing thin. To make a, hopefuly justifiable, comparison with ‘Anatomy of a Soldier,’ Harry Parker served as a soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan, and so is explicitly basing the inspiration for his story on personal experience. In contrast, ‘The Painted Ocean’ did not give me the impression that the author had been abandoned, kidnapped, raped, or survived unaided in the wilderness. This could be my ignorance of such genre tropes, I usually avoid books which contain any combination of the above. More irritatingly, I did not believe that Packard knew what it was to be culturally isolated, the victim of racism, fostered, or to achieve excellent exam results and get to university while being looked after by social services. While the fast-paced second half of the novel could be page-turning fun, it was a real disappointment to find that the very interesting ideas set up on the first chapters would be abandoned for exploitation, torture and adventure. There are excellent novels to be written about the ousider experience in Britain, there also may be great horror-tinged adventure stories with messages about colonisation, power and patriarchy. I feel that, in trying to to do both, ‘The Painted Ocean’ will have trouble in finding an audience. It certainly didn’t work for me, though it may have taught me to be more restrained in requesting books on Netgalley purely based on the first page. Maybe.