If this was a story about gangs, you would expect the violence, racism and general mayhem that Needle dishes up in his trademark fast paced, uncompromising style. However, the ‘gang’ here is the British Army, which has to give one pause for thought. Needle’s (barely) fictional account of the life of the modern British squaddie makes for uncomfortable reading but one can feel the truth behind the fiction on every page.
The central character, Andy Hassan is by his own admission a misfit but this does not explain or condone the brutal world he finds himself in. And it does leave the reader with the question: who would fit into this world – and would we want to be paying them with tax payers money?
Through the mouthpiece of Hassan, Needle presents a picture of squaddies who have never even owned a toothbrush being given guns, of sub standard kit and sub standard food and of a litany of gripes from the lack of promised skills training to the lack of guidance and care for both raw recruits and ex soldiers. Hassan observes how many ex soldiers are homeless – suggesting that the abuse of alcohol and drugs plays as much a part in this as the lack of care from either the Army or the community into which these young men are thrust on leaving the army –should they managed to get out alive. Poignantly, Hassan leaves the story as he begins it, thinking that somehow he may be the one at fault. The reader will think differently.
I’m not suggesting that this book will make you a pacifist, but it should make you angry and it will make you question what the British Army is doing ‘in our name’ and not just when they are abroad ‘defending our interests’.
You have to consider the irony of a society where young men join the army to ‘belong’ or to keep out of trouble and instead find a whole other kind of trouble. Even if Hassan has a propensity for embellishment in the telling of his tale, Needle’s narrative does not… he calls a spade a f**king shovel it’s true, giving a more than brutal wakeup call of the fact behind the fiction of the armed forces: legitimising racism, bigotry and bullying, and the uncomfortable thought lingers that we are paying to train such men to be super effective killers without giving them the context or support for the moral consequences of their actions.
The novel considers the responsibilities and failings of our armed services. It is bound to rile those who believe that we have the best fighting force in the world. However, I submit that the less you want to read this novel, the more you probably need to.
This is an adult read, not for the fainthearted or those who are shocked by strong language or content.
Reviewed by Cally Phillips
Available in Kindle format
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