by DAVID AXE
Rain, the new Afghanistan war novel from former British Army soldier Barney Campbell, is brutally honest and unforgiving in its realism. It’s one of the best books about the war so far this year.
And I hated it. Rain alternately bored, sickened and angered me — and sometimes all three at once. More than a few times I stopped myself just short of hurling my copy across the room.
I insist you read Rain, too.
Rain is less a novel than a public service announcement about the dangers of stupid wars. And as a PSA, Rain is very, very effective. I’ve been to Afghanistan. I’ve seen its horrors with my own two eyes. Still, Campbell’s tale deeply disturbed me … and lingered in my mind.
What you must appreciate about Rain is that it could have been a memoir. Well, almost. The book’s protagonist Tom Chamberlain is a young university graduate and British Army officer on his first tour of Afghanistan in the later years of that country’s grinding war.
Tom is smart, naive, idealistic, a bit damaged. His father had been a soldier, had suffered some secret trauma in Northern Ireland, had never really been the same afterward and had died when Tom was young. In his final tear-splotched letter to his son, Leonard Chamberlain had told Tom he “must join the army.”
“Tom Chamberlain was born to fight in Afghanistan,” Campbell writes of his fictional proxy.
Likewise, Campbell the author is the son of a British soldier and a graduate of Eton College and Oxford University who joined the Army in 2006 and deployed to Helmand province in 2009.
Rain is fiction inasmuch as Campbell made up the characters’ names. But the events the author describes, if not entirely true, at least map closely on Campbell’s deployment six years ago. “Rain draws authenticity from Barney’s own experiences,” Rowland White from Penguin U.K. writes in the foreword of the advance copy that the publisher provided to War Is Boring.
That’s evident in the novel’s structure, tone and weird detail. No self-respecting novelist writing pure fiction would organize a story the way Campbell lays out Rain.
Where the best truly, ahem, fictional works of fiction rise to a tidy dramatic crescendo, Rain is flat — its plot amounting to little more than the drone of a long, uncomfortable deployment punctuated by the slow, syncopated drumbeat of random, horrific violence and interrupted by depressing flashbacks and visits back home.
In a real novel — one that embraces its own lying nature — the hero wouldn’t spend the duration of his first-ever battle lying half-naked beside his Scimitar fighting vehicle, vomiting and shitting himself empty owing to the bad chicken leg he’d eaten back at base.
A real novel would tie up story threads, obligingly give the reader emotional closure. It wouldn’t end the way that Rain ends — abruptly, absurdly, awfully.
I recommend Rain the way I recommend physical exercise, visits to the dentist, jury duty and weekly phone calls to your mother. You may not like doing all those things, but good things — important things — aren’t always fun.
Read Rain. Suffer through it the way the fictional Tom suffers through aching loneliness, humiliating illness and awkward, bloody battles. Suffer through it the way Campbell surely suffered through the confusing, pointless and all-too-real war his government sent him to fight.
Suffer through Rain like I did.