Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 10, 2019

The War Artist (2019), by Simon Cleary

The War Artist is Simon Cleary’s third novel, and it is magnificent.  It is, as Rodney Hall says, at last, a novel that tackles the legacy of the Afghanistan war and the crippling psychological damage of PTSD.  But the novel also lays bare the fissures of modern life forged on Australian soil, and the pressing problem of violence against women.  Painfully, it shows us the limits of sacrifice and redemption.  It is intense reading.

This is the blurb:

When Brigadier James Phelan returns from Afghanistan with the body of a young soldier killed under his command, he is traumatised by the tragedy. An encounter with young Sydney tattoo artist Kira leaves him with a permanent tribute to the soldier, but it is a meeting that will change the course of his life. What he isn’t expecting is a campaign of retribution from the soldiers who blame him for the ambush and threaten his career. With his marriage also on the brink, his life spirals out of control. Years later, Phelan is surprised when Kira re-enters his life seeking refuge from her own troubles and with a young son in tow. She finds a way to help him make peace with his past, but she is still on the run from her own. The War Artist is a timely and compelling novel about the legacy of war, the power of art and the possibility of redemption.

Entirely by coincidence, I read this novel contemporaneously with Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier which is also about a soldier with what we now call post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Both novels explore the impact on those who must deal with a damaged soul, but The War Artist penetrates more deeply into the minds of those who cannot leave the traumatic past behind.

Through Phelan and the flashbacks which lurch unbidden into his life as a civilian, the reader sees the events that haunt him. It reminded me a little of Mark Dapin’s fine novel Spirit House which showed how an horrific past can bleed uncontrollably into the present. As I wrote in my review of that book:

Sensate memory, etched deeply into the brain by trauma or torture, can be triggered by simple everyday things. A scent, a sound, or an even a fleeting part of an image that was also present during the trauma can provoke bizarre and often distressing behaviour when that memory surfaces into everyday life far removed from the initial experience.

For Phelan, his memory of Beckett’s death is inexorable. He feels — and is accused of being — responsible for Beckett’s death, and footage from the body camera gives the patrol ammunition to judge him harshly.  Whereas Rebecca  West had no need to describe the slaughter of WW1 for it to be ubiquitous in The Return of the Soldier, military deaths are so rare in modern warfare, especially in Australian deployments, that each death has an individuality denied to the overwhelming numbers of the Fallen of WW1.  Their names cover vast stone memorials in our cities, capitals and towns, yet the tattoo-artist Kira can memorialise the casualties of the Australia’s Afghan War on the torso of just one man.

The ANZAC legacy dominates the national consciousness and our literature, but contemporary veterans seem invisible.  As far as I know Cleary and Hall are our only authors writing fiction about the legacy of Australia’s contemporary military missions. (Hall’s most recent novel A Stolen Season is about a soldier returned from Iraq.  See my review.)

I’m not fond of the current fad for tattoos, and Cleary’s novel does nothing to dispel its sleazy associations.  But while Kira’s tattoo parlour partner Flores is a horrible, violent drug dealer with nothing to commend him except Kira’s initial infatuation, tattooing as she practises it is depicted as an art form.  Phelan’s impulse to have Beckett’s name tattooed on his shoulder is an homage, an homage which grows to include more of the dead.  Kira’s own skin is covered with the knit of ink.

Do I regret any? she asks herself.  Every part of my body wants to scream yes.  The pair of feathers Flores tattooed on her in the beginning.  The cheap wallflowers she’d inked to shorten her worst days, or the useless skulls she had done after her intuition started going awry.  Flores’s name, that proof of loyalty he’d demanded from her.  Some days she wished she could rip off her epidermis, tear up her thirty-year-old skin and start again.

But you can’t.  She knows that.  You can’t pick and choose.  A tattoo captures a moment.  And then it is gone.  Whatever particular yearning or fear that births a tattoo and propels it into the world cannot last.  Every ensuing need, every fresh desire, differs from the tattooed moments that have already passed into history.  All a tattoo can do is speak of one time, one place.  Who we were, not who we are.

She hears that wise voice sometimes, but in the task of surviving each day there is no time for meditation, no time for philosophising.  (p.250)

Part of the achievement of this novel is the depiction of PTSD beyond its commonly-recognised manifestations.  Phelan the veteran carries his demons within him, but Kira suffers it too, unable to shake off the constant fear that Flores will find her and wreak his vengeance.  Her body holds memory of every beating but it has healed better than her mind.  Every tread on her veranda, every car heard in the distance momentarily paralyses her until her maternal instincts kick in and she checks the whereabouts of her small son.  And while for Phelan life in rural seclusion is a choice he makes because it brings him solace, for Kira it is no choice at all.  Like many women fleeing violence, she knows she must shed every fragment of her old life and connections lest they lead her pursuer to her refuge.

Title page of an 1811 edition of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, translated by R. Graves. (Wikipedia Commons*)

Phelan’s allusions to Marcus Aurelius are an interesting authorial choice.  This Roman emperor is my favourite philosopher because throughout my life his Meditations have guided me towards stoic acceptance of what cannot be changed.  Some people read the Bible for guidance, I read Marcus Aurelius…

But stoicism is not a fool-proof recipe for living: there are times when acceptance is acquiescence and it’s morally or psychologically wrong.  I think book groups would have fine time discussing the stoicism of Phelan’s wife Penny (an allusion to the stoic Penelope in The Odyssey), and also the epilogue that Louis Nowra in his otherwise positive review at The Australian (paywalled) misinterpreted as ‘sentimentality’.  (BTW If Nowra thinks that women being pursued by murderous men is ‘melodrama’ he needs to pay more attention to the daily news or visit this website.)

The War Artist was also reviewed by ex ADF veteran Audie Moldre at Wandering Warriors. He summarises it as a timely reckoning of the challenges arising from the modern battlefield. 

*Image attribution: By Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, R. Graves – Private Collection of S. Whitehead, Public Domain,

Author: Simon Cleary
Title: The War Artist
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2019, 304 pages
ISBN: 9780702260346
Review copy courtesy of UQP

Available from UQP and good bookshops everywhere



  1. The book sounds very good. I have friends who suffer with PTSD and it is serious.

    I never had any interest in getting tattoos but I do find them interesting as a fictional device.

    I agree that Marcis Aurelias is a better source of guidence then the Bible.


    • Yes, it is an important book. I love books like this:)

      The only other book I’ve read that was about tattooing was Indelible Ink by Fiona McGregor. That was about an older woman who did it to signify her departure from her old submissive life. But for me, the tattoos of the Auschwitz survivors that I knew as a teenager make them an indelible memento of cruelty… there was another book I read, Music for the Third ear by Susan Schwarz Senstad in which a Bosnian refugee had been tattooed with the word Serbia on his chest, and whether he had it removed or not, it was there to remind him every time he had his shirt off. (Sadly in that book his external scar made him indifferent to the internal scars his wife had.)

      it’s nice to know that I am not the only one who likes Marcus!


  2. Me too am very partial to Marcus. Good to hear PTSD is coming to the fore.The recent loss of my father a WW2 veteran has brought it close to me again. His life and his family were very damaged because of his experience. And the scars still play out today. The military narrative does need to be explored and expanded beyond the medals and marches. As always Lisa your reviews are excellent. They bring some sanity into these strange times we have to endure.


    • Thank you, Fay, that’s very kind of you to say so.
      One thing I would say about your father’s experience: WW2 was a just war, and at least the suffering had some purpose and almost all of us would honour his service and be grateful to him. But I have always doubted the wisdom of Australia’s participation in Middle East conflicts, and I think it would make things even worse for returned soldiers from post war conflicts where there doesn’t seem to have been a worthwhile outcome (and in the case of Iraq has definitely made things worse).


  3. Agree wholeheartedly.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I avoid war literature but I feel sorry for those young people who see the army as a career with good income and training and end up in places like Iraq and Afghanistan killing people (and avoiding being killed) for no discernable reason. A good friend of one of my daughters has returned from multiple tours to Afghanistan with PTSD so serious he is no longer employable. It’s a waste.


    • It takes all sorts, I suppose. I knew some regular soldiers in a past life and they were mostly fine people. But I had trouble getting my head around the idea that they had chosen a career that meant they might have to kill people.


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