Painting the Sand (2017)

Kim Hughes

Staff Sargeant Kim Hughes is a bomb disposal operator in the British Army undergoing a gruelling six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan during which he defuses over 100 improvised explosives devices, better known as IEDs.

Cold opening in the heat of the desert, it begins extremely strongly with a set piece of writing that his editor should be proud of. The book contains colourful detail throughout and readers will quickly feel like "one of the lads" with the shibboleth military lingo and acronyms. Despite that, this brisk and no-nonsense account — written in that almost-stereotypical squaddie's tone of voice — is highly accessible and furthermore is refreshing culturally-speaking given the paucity of stories in the zeitgest recounting British derring-do in "Afghan", to adopt Hughes' typical truncation of the country.

However, apart from a few moments (such as when the Taliban adopt devices undetectable with a metal detector) the tension deflates slowly rather than mounting like a lit fuse. For example, I would have wished for a bit more improvised suspense and drama when they were being played, trapped or otherwise manipulated by the Taliban for once, and only so much of that meekness can be attributed to Hughes' self-effacing and humble manner. Indeed, the book was somewhat reminiscent of The Secret Barrister in that the ending is a little too quick for my taste, rushing through "current" events and becoming a little too self-referential in parts, this comparison between the two words being aided by both writers having somewhat of a cynical affect about them.

One is left with the distinct impression that Hughes went to Afghan a job. He gets it done with minimal fuss and no unnecessary nonsense … and that's what exactly what he does as a memorialist.