World War II is often the resting place of so much of Australian literature. As a third and fourth generation looks back upon this time, new art is made in the name of understanding the great human tragedy. As a migrant society we have second generation of writers hearing the stories from survivors of Hitler’s Germany or Stalinist Russia; many writers with no connection retreat to the period for stories of human endeavour. Far too often the war in Asia and the Pacific, raged by a Japan, a war that spread to Australian shores and spread a imagined fear of invasion has a secondary place. Shirley Hazard, Richard Flanagan and others have recently explored this side of the war. It is closer to home, it is as brutal as the war in Europe. It has as many stories that need to be shared. However, is fiction the place for such stories? As with the question of if the Holocaust is fit for fiction, so to we ask is the experiences at the hands of the Japanese lessened if the work (even if based on research and primary sources) is fiction?
Christine Piper was born in South Korea. This was the scene of many Japanese acts of aggression and years of colonial rule. Like Australia now, Japan is an important economic and political ally forSouth Korea. Piper’s father is Australian and her mother Japanese. Now living in New York, Piper is one of the many Australians who are as much Australian as citizens of the world. This book, separated into three elements across three periods and places, is a beautiful, elegant and honest novel.
The central figure is a Japanese doctor. The novel begins as the doctor, having been in Australia at the time of the Japanese attack in Pearl Harbour and subsequent entry of the United States into the war, is being moved to an ‘alien’ camp. Here he meets Japanese from every part of Asia and many who had been in Australia for many years. These figures, never having been to Japan, with little cultural links to others, are the most tragic figures. Interred by their own government as ‘aliens’ they are also rejected by the camp members. The doctor is soon seen as a leader. The friendships he creates, the humanity he brings to the camp is constantly haunted by something in his past. He is a mysterious, quiet, yet respected figure.
The novel moves between the Loveday camp, Toyko and Broome. Piper’s style is unique. Passionate, but restrained. Elegant and vibrant without flamboyant flashes. It is a beautifully paced novel. The mysteries holding a shadow over the doctor are slowly explored without hyperbole and cliche. We find that the doctor was employed in a secret military research group that focused on biological weapons. He handles the job with professional and what would be considered as Japanese efficiency. But soon he finds the bodies in his dreams. He has to spend hours after work washing his work from his skin. Soon his wife is isolated, he is a shadow of his former self.
Piper captures the environs of Broome with style and grace. The town, a multicultural melting pot for many years, has a strong Japanese community. After controversy in Tokyo, our doctor escapes to Broome. Here he finds his place at the Japanese hospital. He forms a bond with a Catholic nun who acts as his nurse. He explores the town, its layers of prejudice and wave after wave of new arrivals. The wet and dry seasons are powerfully portrayed in the changing emotions of the inhabitants. Then, far away, an attack on the Americans and our doctor, like thousands of other Japanese, Italians and Germans, is arrested. The arrest scene is a poignant moment. The officer in charge, respectful of the doctor, escorts him as an equal. His offsider wants to cuffed and restrained as a criminal.
I found the pace of the novel so assured and confident. It is clear Piper has extreme talent, but reading that she was mentored by Debra Adelaide and Delia Falconer didn’t surprise me. While I see those writers here, I see Piper. Some of the prose in the novel reminded me of early Coetzee. There’s no sentimentally or gloss to this novel. There can be no greater compliment.
There’s a quote from The Australian on the cover of this book. It says that this novel demands a place alongside Flanagan’s Booker Prize winner. No. It has its own place as an important piece of literature for Australia. It is an Australian novel in its confidence and scope. It is a novel for Australia in the Asian region. Written by a worldly woman, it is a novel that has global reach. It is a mature piece of art that has its own important place in the history of Australian literature. I wish I had have written this novel.