Thomas Keneally has said in the past, “nearly all my books ... concern themselves with incomprehension across racial and cultural borders”. He has written about tensions between Aborigines and white Australians; felons in a South Pacific penal colony; the depletion of the Irish population through famine, emigration and transportation; the priesthood; both World Wars, and much else. Schindler’s Ark won the Booker Prize and was made into the film Schindler’s List, and he has been short-listed without winning on three other occasions.
His thirtieth book is a fictionalised account of a real-life event, the outbreak in 1944 of Japanese prisoners of war from a PoW camp in New South Wales. The event was remarkable for the motives behind it: unlike the Italian PoWs held in separate camps at the same centre, the Japanese largely believed that to survive the war as losers was a great dishonour, and that it would be preferable to die in battle. The twin aims were therefore to do harm to their enemy, who had treated them humanely, and, more importantly, to die while doing so.
Keneally flits between two settings, the PoW camp in the (fictional) town of Gawell and a nearby farm inhabited by Duncan Herman and his daughter-in-law, Alice.
Alice’s husband Neville is a PoW interned in Austria. As part of the war effort, PoWs from the camp in Gawell are sent to work on nearby farms, and Duncan accepts an Italian prisoner named Giancarlo. Alice finds herself drawn to this exotic man, so different physically to her absent husband. Meanwhile, in the prison camp, the reader is introduced to several different Japanese PoWs, and the background to their capture is drawn. The private lives of the camp commandant, Abercare, and of the commander of the main Japanese camp, Suttor, are also explored. Suttor has a son in a Japanese prison camp, and is terrified that any inadvertent harm to Japanese PoWs will reach the ears of the enemy and will result in the Japanese exacting vengeance on his son.
Some of the Japanese PoWs are haunted by memories of their conduct in China, where women were raped and civilians murdered gratuitously, and the Australian media feed this fear of the Japanese as “other”, provoking fear among civilians.
Keneally evokes the brisk pace of wartime life well while never losing sight of the private dreams of his characters. His writing is remarkably evocative, whether he is describing everyday occurrences (“gravel fell ... with chattering brevity”) or characters ([Nevski] “harboured that common Russian demeanour of intense and dolorous disinheritance”.)
The breakout is described with chilling efficiency, and we gain an insight into the minds of the Japanese so even if we don’t empathise with their desire for a glorious death, we can comprehend it.
The story also shows how the hands of the captors are sometimes as tied as those of the prisoners – as Keneally says, Suttor “was coming to the bitter awareness that the captors are prisoners too”.