Opening a book by Thomas Keneally, we know we will be led into a complex world where humanity itself will be placed under a compassionate but unflinching eye. This fictionalised account of a historical prison breakout by over 500 Japanese POWs from a camp in New South Wales in 1944 is another example of Keneally’s expansive storytelling.
Almost documentary in its approach, this moves between the personal and the political, weaving deep back-stories with present conflicts. At its heart, is the disjunction between the Japanese prisoners and their mostly Australian captors: for the Japanese, to be captive and alive degrades their warrior status, and the breakout itself is more an attempt to die with honour than to escape.
The scenes set in the prison alternate with the home life of Alice in the nearby town, whose husband is in a German POW camp; her relationship with an Italian prisoner whose own philosophy is so markedly different from the Japanese one; and the sometimes tragic lives of the camp commanders.
Keneally writes elegantly and weaves his research seamlessly into the story he is telling so that what we have is an organic whole. He breaks that supposedly cardinal rule of novel writing – show, don’t tell – and proves that ‘telling’, in the hand of a master, works superbly.
This is such a dense and intense book that any review can only give a taste of what it offers, and each reader will find their own way into the book and take different things from it. So not a simple or necessarily an easy book, but one which is richly rewarding.
(This review is from an ARC courtesy of the publisher)