Set in Sydney, 1990, this is a wonderful mix of warmth, wit and compassion as 70-something Jimmy struggles to reconcile himself to his memories of being a Japanese prisoner of war working on the notorious Burma railway.
Stories of Pacific prisoners of war and the labour camps are not new to either fiction or non-fiction (Beneath Another Sun,The Widow and Her Hero,The Railway Man) but where this book excels is in tracing the enduring, immutable legacy it leaves on Jimmy's psyche. There are some almost unbearable moments such as when he turns on his 13 year old grandson, and the moving plight of his wife - but the pain of the book is leavened by the laugh-out-loud bantering of Jimmy and his cronies (`when I was very young I used to think the three were one person, Sollykatzanmyer'), whose back-biting and grumpiness hide an unspoken bond that comes from the unspeakable experiences they have shared.
This is a powerful read which is never maudlin or sentimental, and which has enough nerve to mingle the comic with the harrowing. Dapin has established himself as a novelist with heart, and a voice of his own.
Australia, 1990. Any stranger seeing the four old Jews sipping in one of Bondi's bars could sit close by and be royally entertained. Jimmy, Solomon, Myer, Katz seem natural comedians, baiting each other a particular pleasure - disparaging one-liners a speciality. It would be safe to assume they have not a care in the world....
Narrator thirteen year old David knows differently. All four are plagued by jarring memories - none more so than his wisecracking grandpa Jimmy. This is a deeply troubled man - home falling to bits, mind beginning to fail, he coughing up blood. Now he is obsessed with building a spirit house. Hopefully here the souls of his long dead mates will assemble and find peace, he thereby spared the nightmares that cause him to scream.
Here is a heartrending tale of the lasting impact of war. As they work on the spirit house, Jimmy tells David of four horrendous years held captive by the Japanese nearly half a century ago. He holds nothing back. Daily humiliations, only small portions of rice to eat, vicious beatings often for no reason. Most of those around him lost the will to live. Townsville Jack was his hero. Whatever the tortures inflicted, Jack seemed destined to remain uncrushable - an example to them all. Working on the railway was for many the ultimate challenge, they "dying like roos in a cull".
Fine writing here has produced colourful characters, wry humour (long suffering grandma declares, "I'm leaving, and I'm taking the shortbreads") and graphic images that greatly distress.
This is one of those occasions when five stars does not indicate a novel was "loved". Instead it proved a work that was at times almost too much to bear, a thought-provoking study of man's inhumanity to man, of moving attempts to come to terms with the unspeakable.
No wonder this haunting novel has been so acclaimed!
(Better times nowadays? If only! Each day's news contains details of new atrocities. Touchingly we learn David himself is not immune. One of a Jewish minority at school, he is repeatedly bullied "for killing Jesus".)
David is 13 years old and has been sent to live with his grandparents. The story is set in Sydney, Australia - the date is 1990. David feels unwanted by his parents who have separated, he really thinks that it is his fault.
Jimmy is David's grandfather, he saw and experienced horrors during his time as a prisoner of war in Changi prison. Jimmy starts to tell his story to David, told in flashbacks to 1944, the time that prisoners were building the Burma Railway.
Jimmy suffered terribly, not just physically, but emotionally too - his story is full of deprivation and broken men.
Jimmy and David's relationship grows and strengthens as Jimmy relives his memories. This is also a journey for Jimmy, a mission to try to heal his soul.
This is a heartbreaking, yet often heartwarming story that is so incredibly well researched and well written. There is a realism about the writing that is quite stunning at times.
This is the story of thirteen-year-old David, who, surplus to the requirements of his separated parents (each of whom has taken up with a new lover), has been sent to stay with his grandparents. But the central character is David's grandfather, Jimmy, a veteran POW of the Japanese railway, who in his muddled old age regularly gets together with his three veteran friends, to drink and gossip. These four old Jewish men are delightful together; funny, human, constantly taking the mickey out of each other, but tied together by bonds deeper then mere friendship.
Until now, Jimmy has been unable to speak of his wartime experiences, but he has begun to build the "spirit house" of the title, to house the souls of his dead friends, and while David helps him with his project, he begins to tell his story.
Jimmy's is a harrowing tale of beatings and starvation; of men being worked until they dropped, brutally punished for the smallest thing (or for nothing at all), and driven to the edge of despair. And yet it is told without self-pity or details of the actual suffering endured, and this makes the narrative all the more gripping. Jimmy has never recovered - can never recover - from his experiences, and yet the reader is led to feel that they have made him the man he is, for while he is often confused, he never loses his sense of humour or his deep love of his friends; both those present, and those who have died. His wife, who is largely shut out of Jimmy's terrible past, nevertheless seems to understand, and despite her frequent exasperation, she sticks by - and loves - her man.
This book has everything. It is by turns funny, tragic and gripping, and the very human characters are wonderfully drawn. If I have any criticism at all, it would be that at times it seems a little over-long, and I was a bit confused by the ending. But these things don't really matter. I read a lot of novels, and to my shame, often forget the plots after a few months. But I know that this is a novel that will remain with me for a very long time, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
At one level `Spirit House' could be classified in the `humour' genre with its scintillatingly witty dialogue including a stream of clever innuendos between 4 Jewish ex World War II soldiers as they seldom manage a serious conversation - but continuously insult one another and refer spuriously to the past. For almost 50 years they have buried their memories of a harrowing and horrific part of their lives when prisoners of the Japanese and their brutal exploitation as slave labour on the Burma railway. There is a sweetness to their lifelong relationship but it is soured by one of their number, Jimmy, who opens up to his grandson, David, to recall and recount wartime experiences. His story places `Spirit House' firmly in the genre of `historical fiction'.
Jimmy may not have spoken about his involvement in the war from guilt-ridden surrender in Singapore, through years of deprivation and hardship in captivity, with his grief over lost comrades, and his feelings of hopelessness on surviving to return to Australia - but then in his 70s he uses teenager David as a recipient for his disclosures. The `spirit house' is a form of shrine Jimmy constructs in which will go tributes and honours in remembrance of the dead. Jimmy's friends are in some form of denial that is covered up by their banter, but to David helping with the spirit house - Jimmy finally speaks out. Language embraces Yiddish-Aussie words and phrases, plus a few expletives, that add authenticity to the fictional account.
Author Mark Dapin introduces a wide range of characters to recognize the conflicts between officers and other ranks, differentiation between individual prisoners from heroes to villains, and the various attitudes and actions amongst the Japanese. He skilfully tells the story in chapters set in Singapore and Burma during the war and Bondi in 1990, and also there are intervals of reminiscence from the POW camps and in the aftermath of war. `Spirit House' is a forceful indictment of Japanese atrocities in the Far East, together with insights to woeful British conduct. Against the sweetness of Jimmy's wisecracking with the strong bonds he forms plus caring for others without self-pity the author sets out the sour consequences of his despair over beatings, executions and starvation of prisoners. `Spirit House is a powerful and poignant commentary - it well deserves 5-star rating.
This is an immensely engaging and powerful novel and reflects historical fiction at its best. An intriguing and well crafted plot, believable (three dimensional) characters, and strong on historical detail. The author is excellent at evoking the period. The recollections of wartime make for harrowing reading but this reflects the historical accuracy of POW experiences under the Japanese. This is an emotional and thought provoking story. Everything is brought vividly to life which is a tribute to the writing skills of Mark Dapin. Highly recommended.
I really didn't know what to expect when I opened this book, but it wasn't what I got: which was a rich, engaging, amusing, distressing and captivating story, both of an Australian POW during WW2 and his grandson as they both come to terms with his past, and find a way to make peace for the future. The story is tautly written, the characterisation powerful and disturbing, the humour genuine and vital and the horror haunting. This is a vibrant, original and powerful novel which had tears spilling down my face as I read it on the beach. Stop reading this review and buy it - you won't regret it, but it may give you a couple of bad dreams.
The Spirit House by Mark Dapin for me was an excellent read based on one man's past memories of his time in a Japanese Prisoner of war camp through the Second World War. I loved how the author brought history to life through the main character an elderly Grandfather named Jimmy as he finally led his ghosts to rest but to finally do this after so many years he had to tell someone. That someone was his grandson who through his Grandfather's memories finally realised how much a hero his Grandfather and his friends were and how brave they were to survive such a harrowing time in history. While we the reader read about Jimmy telling his grandson his stories such a harrowing tale there was so much feeling through the words used. Even though the book is based on such a sad time for me the book had humour throughout which kept me reading until the last page. The Spirit House by Mark Dapin is a good read which I do believe both male and female readers will enjoy reading it in equal measures.
Many historical fictions stories are written in two time periods and this is no different. The difference here is that the memories are brought out of the grandfather by the presence of his grandson rather than the younger generation investigating the story as it more usual. This change of direction gives a very natural feel to the book and it flows beautifully. I loved there relationship between the grandfather and the grandson although wasn't as convinced by the old mans friend group. The period and the events experienced by this character are fascinating and described in a believable way. Well worth a read.
This is a powerful and very moving novel, set in Sydney, Australia, in 1990 and in Singapore, Changi and the Thai/Burma Railway in WW2. The story revolves around four Jewish war veterans in their seventies and the thirteen year old grandson of one of them, sent to stay with his grandparents while his parents attempt to sort out their divorce and their new partners. Grandfather Jimmy and his three lifelong friends: Solly, Katz and Myer (known together as Sollykatsanmyer), are linked by their boyhood and wartime memories and nightmares, though they all have different strategies for dealing with the horrors they all faced: Jimmy, Katz and Myer all suffered as helpless prisoners in the building of the infamous railway while Solly had hard times in other theatres of war. They hide their love for each other in constant, and funny, sniping over drinking sessions at the RSL club and young David is drawn into their company and their stories. Jimmy, while suffering constant nightmares, has refused to talk about the war for years but this is the week of Anzac day and gradually he begins to tell David the story of three years of hell, and decides that he must build a 'spirit house' in his garden for the ghosts that haunt him to rest in peace. I'm familiar with and have read many accounts of this period, but there is an immediacy in this book that transcends much of what I have already read. The characters felt very real to me and though the appalling helpless suffering is in no way glossed over the emphasis is on friendship and care for one another, and the fight to survive the unsurvivable. There are also very funny sequences, particularly the frog racing, at Changi and later at a camp near an airstrip construction, devised and run by a charismatic character known as Townsville Jack. Jimmy comes over as a confused, haunted and sad man, with a core of steel; David as a confused young teenager who is changed and deepened by his stay with Jimmy and Sollykatzanmyer, but all the characters in the story are memorable and individual, from Jimmy's long-suffering wife Frida to the Frummer across the road, Barry Dick, who flirted with Buddhism and Hare Krishna before deciding to be an ultra-conservative Jew, and so many of the men who lived and died on the railway. The backgrounds are as vivid as the people; from rather scruffy Bondi in the nineties to Singapore, Changi and the horrors of the terrain where men must build a railway through rock with nothing but pickaxes and a couple of cups of rice a day. The Japanese and Korean guards, for all their casual brutality, are not emphasised here. What is important is the human spirit versus the waste of lives, and some postwar attitudes that had a man remark to Jimmy in Singapore at the end of the war that he'd been lucky to sit the war out. I found this novel extremely moving and thoroughly involving, and I heartily recommend it.