The War Artist and the human cost of war

9 Sep 2019

For UQ alumnus, author and barrister Simon Cleary, a soldier’s experience of the aftermath of war is something we could all use some insight into.

“Trauma – no matter the context – is often life-changing,” Cleary said.

His most recent novel, The War Artist, is a raw and intensely intimate insight into the mental artefacts of war, and how lingering trauma manifests itself in the lives and minds of returned soldiers. 

Simon Cleary (photo credit Patrick Hamilton)

After graduating from UQ with a Bachelor of Arts in 1988, followed by a Bachelor of Laws in 1992, Cleary established his legal career in Sydney before returning to Brisbane in 2011. Having acted for more than 100 people who have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it wasn’t long before his legal work began to inspire his writing.

“Perhaps the most compelling experience I’ve had in acting for clients struggling with trauma-induced mental illness is just how heroic we humans can be, and how often we respond to challenge with love, sacrifice and courage,” Cleary said. 

“In many ways, The War Artist celebrates the heroic journeys of healing that get played out every day in the community around us.”

The novel uses the experiences of fictional protagonist Brigadier James Phelan as a lens to explore the very real personal fallout caused by conflict-induced trauma in soldiers. 

The death of a young soldier in his unit left an indelible impact on Phelan, and he finds his mental state and personal relationships suffer and begin to deteriorate as he struggles under the burden of the death and burgeoning blame for the incident from fellow soldiers. 

It is with the aid of a tattoo artist – Kira – that Phelan is able to slowly make peace with his experiences in the war. Kira has her own battles, and the novel touches on her experiences with domestic violence. Overall, the novel is a larger investigation of violence, and the legacies it can leave in our lives.

On how he manages to balance careers in both law and writing simultaneously, Cleary says there are several aspects of the professions that overlap and complement each other. 

“I look for ways in which my writing and practising law can nurture and support each other,” Cleary said.

“There are actually many overlaps. Storytelling is inherent to both, of course, and I find that the best novelists and the best lawyers are all profoundly good listeners and observers of people and the world around them.

“Often it is in the spaces between the most obvious ‘facts’ or plot lines that the most important truths are found.”. 

For Cleary, the novel is not only a window into the often broken minds of our returned servicemen, but a message to address the issue at the root: preventing conflict and war in itself. 

“The War Artist poses questions about the cost of war, and in particular the costs of war trauma,” he says. 

“One of my own grandfathers returned from WW1 with nightmares of the slaughter he’d witnessed on the Western Front, [and] to see the cycle being repeated again in the context of our more recent wars trouble[s] me.”

“As a society we can’t forget that cost. We need to understand it, and all its manifestations, and respond with compassion and support to sufferers and their families. But we also need to act with clear-eyed determination to do what we can to create a world in which we don’t expose each other unnecessarily to trauma.”

The War Artist is published by University of Queensland Press. Cleary is the author of two other novels, The Comfort of Figs (2008) and Closer to Stone (2012). He is also a practicing barrister.