Category Archives: War Fiction

The Gift of Rain – Tan Twan Eng

gift of rain

“I’ve got a book you’ll love,” my friend Steven said to me after I announced I was moving to Malaysia. “It’s about a half-English, half-Malaysian person living in Malaysia – and it’s one of my favourites.”

That was all he said at the time, but it was relatable enough to intrigue me – a half-English, half-Malaysian person moving to Malaysia – and I was delighted when, a few months later, Steven arrived at my leaving do with a parting gift, quite literally: The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng, which – true to Steven’s description – is about a young boy named Philip who is half-English, half-Chinese Malaysian, and, as the blurb describes, ‘feeling neither’. I was intrigued to read it as I embarked on my Malaysian adventure, but I had no idea just how serendipitous it would be. For let’s be more specific – Philip lives in Penang, the tiny, charming island on the west coast of Malaysia, where I was moving to specifically – and the book itself is a love letter to Penang as much as it is a harrowing tale of Malaya in World War II. As I was reading and adjusting to Penang life, everything Philip did, ate, and encountered were things I was starkly familiar with – the streets he walked, the char kuey teow he ate or nyonya food he described, the hotels and bars he visited with friends, the mansions and clans and jetties and hawkers of George Town – and I couldn’t possibly believe the coincidence of reading it in the brief time I was living there myself. Steven didn’t even recall it was set in Penang when he gave it to me. It’s easy to say it felt like fate.

But enough about me, and more about the book (all spoiler-free) – though I have no doubt my personal circumstance had a very strong effect on my enjoyment of it. The book begins when Philip, as an old man in modern Penang, tells a relative stranger about his late teens and early twenties in World War II, and his encounters with a Japanese friend and sensei which led to one of the most remarkable relationships of his life. He meets Hayato Endo (known throughout as ‘Endo-san’) when he is only 16, a loner in Penang who feels out of place in his white-English family, before the War and before (presumably) the fear and terror of the Japanese and what they could inflict. He learns martial arts and Japanese rituals with the older man he comes to see as a friend, father, mentor, and, ambiguously suggested at times, a lover. But when Japan invades Malaya and the War rages over Penang, Philip has to decide where his loyalties lie, at great political cost either way.

At first, I wasn’t so sure about the book. I mentioned that the fact it was being written about a world I was so familiar with was very endearing, but at the same time, Tan dips into almost a guidebook-style at times, with overly and unnecessarily descriptive segments about various aspects of Penang life, which felt a little jarring and gratuitous in a novel. The style of writing itself didn’t sit well with me at first, and the ‘old man talking about his young life’ fell into a cliché style of storytelling (with not to mention some very Male Gaze descriptions of the woman Philip is talking to). But as the book progressed, these weaknesses vanished as either Tan found his rhythm or I adjusted to his style as a reader. And once we hit WWII, I could barely put it down.

As a European who only studied History up until I was 15 or so, I find I’ve only been taught about World War II with a very Euro-centric focus – it was only after reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North did I learn more about and realise the extent of what was happening in Australasia at the time. Given I’m half-Malaysian, it’s pretty bad form on my part not to have known more about Malaysia’s history, but I’ve found that as an adult I’ve been exposed to and learnt a lot more about significant historical events worldwide through literature. Since Richard Flanagan’s book, I’ve been strangely fascinated with what was happening in this part of the world (I even went to look at parts of the Death Railway in Thailand recently), and The Gift of Rain is another example of historical fiction done well – factual, with enough personable content specific to the character to make it easy to empathise with the horrors within. Not to mention accurate: I’ve spoken anecdotally to a few of my Malaysian friends about it, who recall their grandparents’ deep fear and horror associated with the Japanese occupation at the time.

The Gift of Rain has also a slightly supernatural element, with both Endo-san and Philip believing they have met before in previous lifetimes (and occasionally seeing flashes of their encounters), and are due to meet again and again life-after-life until they strike a balance of harmony. Fortunately this doesn’t dwarf or overwhelm the plot, nor does it dull the tension hovering over what’s going to happen to Philip. At times the suspense is biting, and I felt a genuine and very deep loss for well-developed characters that met bitter fates at the hands of the Japanese. My only criticism of the characters’ relationships is that I didn’t necessarily feel the same sense of admiration for Endo-san that Philip did, and as a result this pivotal relationship and Philip’s deep, loving, almost unconditional respect for the man felt a bit forced. It meant that the climactic moment in their relationship didn’t have the same hard-hitting effect on me as some of the others did, but it might just be me and the way I read it (I’ll have to ask Steven what he reckons).

I have no idea if the book has a film adaptation, and I hope it doesn’t get adapted, though I think it would make for a very nice television series, particularly if it was produced and filmed in Penang. Living here has made me lament how perfect and scenic Penang would be for a film setting, and we all know how starved mainstream television and media is for true Asian representation. Plus, let’s be frank, there are enough British characters mixed with the Japanese and Malaysians to give it a solid greenlight in the BBC writers’ room.

My Goodreads account has buggered itself up a bit, but I’m pretty sure I gave this one 4 out of 5 stars – not perfect, but a new favourite.

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

Richard Flanagan-The Narrow Road To The Deep North cover

I read this at around Christmastime last year; it’s an Australian novel that won the 2014 Booker, so it was on the gift list, of course. Got to admit, I’d never heard of Flanagan before I read this. I have since attempted one of his earlier books, which was so overwritten I couldn’t stomach it. So how come The Narrow Road to the Deep North caused such a stir? I confess: I had a bit of a love / hate relationship with this one, particularly with the cheesy writing – it was only when I got to the end did I realise what a powerful impact it had had on me, and I noticed how bloody miserable I was to finish it.

The plot follows Dorrigo Evans, a surgeon who becomes a Prisoner of War on one of the infamous Burma death railways in 1943. The story is not told chronologically but instead opens on Dorrigo as an old man, reflecting on his life. There is a lot of detail about his experience in the POW camp, with flashbacks to Evans’s earlier life and romance with his uncle’s young wife. Flanagan supposedly based the war plot points on his own father’s experience as a Japanese POW and wrote the novel as a tribute to him, which added an element of authenticity to the very jarring scenes (unfortunately, Flanagan’s dad died before the book was published). It was these sections, in particular, that were intensely moving, powerfully written and evocative, and also what drew me to Dorrigo as a protagonist – probably one of the best I’ve come across (for reasons I can’t put my finger on).

It’s a shame, then, that we had to endure the dodgy romance running alongside it. Dorrigo’s affair with his uncle’s wife Amy was occasionally so overdone it made me cringe, reading like bad erotica; it’s probably no accident that it made it into the shortlist for the Bad Sex Awards 2014 (though, to be honest, to be shortlisted for both the Booker and the Bad Sex Awards for the same book is an achievement any author with half a sense of humour would be proud of). At times the romance WAS written well – particularly in the early days, when both Dorrigo and Amy are torn between paralysing sexual tension and the implications of acting on it – but as the plot continued, it got worse and worse. Thankfully, these questionable areas were compensated by the quality of the POW camp sections, which were often so absorbing it was hard to put the novel down.

I’m unsure what it was about Dorrigo Evans that made him such a captivating protagonist. I certainly didn’t connect with him at the beginning, when we see him struggling under the weight of being a revered war hero (a title he doesn’t think he deserves), and being unfaithful to his wife. He is a flawed protagonist, but as the book progresses, it’s hard to dispute how much he did for his fellow prisoners in their terrible circumstances, using a combination of highly refined surgical skills, courage, and, well, common decency. After emerging from the camp, Dorrigo seems to find more fulfilment in suffering and trauma, which is perhaps an inevitable post-war attitude. His significant relationship with Amy happened prior to his time in the Burma death railway, and it made me wonder if the relationship would have had as much meaning had he found her afterwards. Indeed, they do cross paths years later, but neither choose to speak to the other – too much has passed since their affiar. Dorrigo is by no means the exclusive focus of the novel; Flanagan inhabits the minds of everyone involved, from fellow prisoners to Japanese officers, exploring the mind and mentality behind each individual.

It’s probably fairly morbid of me but I connected to Dorrigo the most during the times when he was suffering. There was one powerful instance in the camp when he is ordered to confirm a certain number of men are fit for work (read: fit for exhausting labour) when, in fact, the majority of men can barely stand up. As he haggles with the numbers, he is forced to hold up an ill man whilst being repeatedly slapped in the face for downright insisting (with his Hippocratic Oath in mind, no doubt) that the men’s health be protected. He’s concentrating so hard on standing upright, on keeping his weight balanced, on holding the man while feeling the painful blows again and again – it’s a shocking scene, and it’s easy for the reader to very intensely connect with Dorrigo.

The plot contained the occasional twist or surprise, but generally the structure meant you were expecting most of what was to come, and in that way it became a little more painful, perhaps. By the end I was a little bit obsessed with it. I strongly recall that moment of finishing it – at my sister’s house, which must have been close to a year ago – and feeling a great sense of despair, which, despite my horrendously long reading list, is a feeling I don’t have very often.

So, on Goodreads, it got four stars. Not the full five, owing to the dodgy romance, but you can be sure this is one story that will stay with me for a while.

[Coming next: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood]

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We Need New Names – NoViolet Bulawayo

68.Noviolet-Bulawayo-We-Need-New-Names

I first heard of this book at Hay Festival in 2013. As you might remember from my other Hay blog posts, the festival puts on regular talks called ‘Fictions’, where one or two authors are probed about the latest novels they are promoting. NoViolet Bulawayo was in front of a tiny audience (with Meike Ziervogel promoting Magda) talking about We Need New Names; the book sounded vaguely interesting at the time, but I didn’t really consider picking it up. Then, a few months later, the book – her debut novel – was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Up against the mammoth contender The Luminaries it’s not overly surprising she didn’t scrape the top spot, but to be shortlisted is a pretty respectable start to a literary career, it’s got to be said. It wasn’t until last year that I had a chance to read it – no spoilers below.

The book follows 10-year-old Darling, a young girl growing up in Zimbabwe before being taken to the USA and spending her teenage years stateside. There’s no doubt an autobiographical element to that; Bulawayo also grew up in Zimbabwe, though she didn’t move to Michigan until she was a litte bit older. The novel is told in the voice of Darling, written in a simplistic style that’s easy to read – I raced through it in a matter of days – which is something particularly characteristic of African fiction written in English. In fact, certain sections reminded me of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (and the phrase ‘things fall apart’ was often used to describe the deteriorating state of Zimbabwe in WNNN).

At their Hay talk, Bulawayo and Ziervogel talked about writing about history from a fictional standpoint. In literature, you have to forget about facts and statistics, and instead submerge yourself into the story. Bulawayo said that writing about a crumbling society through the eyes of a child is powerful, as often children are the most vulnerable due to their ignorance and lack of control over what is happening around them. A child’s eye depoliticises a situation, meaning that the writer (and reader) must suspend their disbelief and look at the scenario through innocent eyes (even if they themselves have a lot of knowledge about it). It’s an effective technique but, personally, I’m not totally in love with it. It’s all right when you’re already familiar with a situation, but as an outsider with little or no knowledge it’s tricky to follow current affairs through the perspective of a child, considering children often have a warped understanding of what is happening or are simply uninterested in it. If I had done more research, maybe I wouldn’t feel that way about We Need New Names.

But then does that take away the point? There’s a poignant part in WNNN when the children take a local tragedy and turn it into a game, re-enacting it like a play. Darling’s voice becomes very adult at that point and we are subject to an astute description of the attackers, the victim, and the stoic faces watching the violence unfold with the knowledge that they are powerless to prevent it. When a BBC crew asks the children what game they are playing, one of her friends replies with (paraphrasing): ‘a game? No, this is real life.’ Seeing innocent children accept horrific violence as part of their normality is disturbing, to say the least.

My only criticism of the book is that it feels slightly rushed. It’s not very long, and if each character, very vivid in their own right, was given their due attention, it might feel a little more fleshed out. By the time the book ends we have only seen a brief glimpse into Darling’s life in America – I would have liked to have seen more of it, more of the trials and tribulations she faced there, as well as the generally confusing experience of growing up and going through puberty. Another thing that misled me was the timescale. When Darling was 10 and living a poverty-stricken life in Zimbabwe, her friends were talking about singing Lady Gaga, indicating that at that point in time, Gaga must have been fairly famous (to reach impoverished children in Zimbabwe, at least). However, a fair few years later (maybe 4 years?) when Darling is in America, she mentions a very recent scandal – when Rihanna was beaten up by her boyfriend Chris Brown. Lady Gaga released Just Dance (and began her climb to fame) in 2008, yet Rihanna was attacked by Chris Brown in 2009. Sure, it’s pedantic of me to point out, but given that there were very limited hints as to when the book was set, I relied on these cultural references to give it a framework. It felt a little jumbled.

Bulawayo mentioned at Hay that she was working on a collection of AIDS stories, again addressing a silence and taboo with a creative voice, on another subject that is personal to her. AIDS is touched on in WNNN, with it being described as ‘the sickness’ and presented as a real epidemic. I’m looking forward to seeing her approach to building stories around it, whenever it may appear.

Goodreads, then: four stars. It was written so well but the abruptness of the ending took it down a notch. I should be on the Booker committee at this rate.

[Coming next: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel]

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Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

Catch-22-cover

I bought Joseph Heller’s famous novel from Waterstones in February, along with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (which I’ll review a bit later on). As I passed it through the till, the friendly shop worker nodded in satisfaction and said, ‘ah yes, two books everyone should have on their shelves.’ Now that I’ve read both, I think she was definitely on to something. (Spoiler-free review.)

Catch-22 is set during the Second World War. It was written in 1953 (published in 1961) so slightly retrospectively written, but I believe the intention was to create a satire that highlighted the ridiculousness surrounding some of the service requirements for those fighting in the war. It follows an air squadron based on the tiny island of Pianosa, although Heller mentions at the beginning that he took some creative licence with the setting; in real life the island is not nearly big enough to accommodate a military complex. The main character is Yossarian, a US army bombardier, but the plot zooms in and out on various characters throughout the novel, from the generals to the majors to the doctors to the prostitutes in nearby cities. Each chapter is titled with a different character’s name, indicating that they are the focus for that section of the book. There are a LOT of characters and without this clear structure it could be a lot more confusing than it was, particularly considering the plot doesn’t progress in chronological order, but Heller manages to balance the characterisation with the amount of story exposure each character got very nicely.

For me, it was one of those glorious instances when you’ve heard of a book and you know it’s famous but you know absolutely nothing about it, so you can read it from a fresh perspective. I didn’t expect anything from Catch-22, but one thing that took me surprise was just how side-splittingly funny it was. In fact I was often guffawing out loud while reading it on the morning commute, standing in a packed tube, which got me some strange looks. The whole thing revolves around paradoxes. Catch-22 is itself a paradox, referring to a rule in which the solution to a problem is rendered impossible by the very problem itself (there always being a ‘catch’). Describing something as a catch-22 has entered our vocabulary, which is a huge credit to Heller – certainly he must have been excited to hear it bandied around prior to his death in 1999. The main definition of Catch-22 in the novel revolves around a clause to escape military duty: a man does not have to fly dangerous missions if he is crazy, but acknowledging the danger means he is sane, therefore has to fly the missions. If he flies them anyway, he was probably crazy and didn’t have to, but he if complains that he cannot, he is deemed sane and therefore flies them. Essentially, there is no way to avoid flying the missions. Confusing yet astoundingly simple and definitely a no-win situation for those restricted by it. As the novel progresses, we discover more and more rules that fit the Catch-22 definition.

I’ve noticed that quite a lot of people – mainly young men, actually – consider it one of their favourite books. It seems to be the one iconic novel that everyone has read. It’s certainly a lot more accessible than a lot of the classics, with its rapid pace and witty dialogue, and it has a rich, interesting cast of characters (albeit mostly male). Upon its release, it became something of a cult novel for teenagers and college students, so perhaps it is a novel you read and fall in love with when you’re young – and, indeed, male. I had someone tell me recently that they consider One Hundred Years of Solitude a ‘boys’ book’ – I personally reckon this is complete bollocks, but I’ve started to feel aware of what kinds of book seem to be targeted towards men and what kinds towards women. In the 1960s this may have had an exclusively male readership, and it’s not hard to see why (it’s another spectacular failure of the Bechdel Test). There are very few female characters who are even given the virtue of a name; one of the principal female characters, for example, is known throughout as Nately’s Whore (Nately being one of the men in the squadron). That said, as a female reader, I didn’t feel alienated by the plot or characterisation (which just goes to show, yet again, that MEN AND WOMAN AREN’T ACTUALLY THAT DIFFERENT).

The story itself is fantastically wacky. Some sections are rooted in realism and others descend very quickly into absurdity, which I suspect was part of Heller’s satirical intentions. The horror of war is contrasted with the hilarity of the situation, which is just the kind of mash-up I’m rather fond of, as strange as that sounds. That said, towards the end the horror becomes more prevalent, although I won’t say too much for fear of spoiling it. There is a lot of emphasis on how the individual reacts to the war. Yossarian often ponders the point of being in the war in the first place and the effect that he is having on it. I’ve always believed that soldiers are remarkably selfless people (which explains why I blubber so much at any World War One memorial) but the message came across fairly clearly in Catch-22. Who is the real enemy? Yossarian wants to live, and if his superiors are preventing him from opting out until he dies, then in his eyes, that makes them the enemy, not the Germans. He questions the very idea of dying for your country and how much of a difference it makes overall, and despite what could be seen as quite a selfish attitude, it’s easy to sympathise with him. Again, I don’t want to go into the ending because I don’t want this to be a spoiler-laden blog post, but it has a very different outlook to the beginning.

So, on to the famous film, released in 1970 and directed by Mike Nichols.

catch22

It took me a little while to get into the film, I must say. The sound of the planes in the background is draining, and the early scenes aren’t overly gripping. Yossarian, too, seemed badly cast and hysterical. I don’t doubt that Alan Arkin is a fantastic actor (looking a bit like Robert Downey Jr in his youth), but at 36, he just had a stoic look about him that didn’t suit the young (28), fun-loving Yossarian I had imagined from the book. That said, I warmed to him as the film progressed, and it started to feel like a fairly faithful adaptation.

It’s not a short book, so it must have been tricky to adapt, and indeed at times the film felt almost a little too short (116 minutes in total); it didn’t seem like many of the characters were given their due screentime. The film had a lot of the book’s humour, but some of the more drawn-out, surreally comedic scenes had to be cut down, which took away from that slightly. One scene in particular which had me in stitches in the book was when Yossarian is expected to pose as a dying bombardier named Harvey, who has died days before his family have travelled to visit him. As Yossarian lies in bed, the family lament how different he looks and therefore how ill he must be, and call him both Harvey and Yossarian in their conversation. The whole scene is ridiculous, but in the film, it has been stripped back so much it becomes a little tiresome and loses some of its impact. That said, visualising some of the more disturbing scenes had a much more powerful effect in the film than it had in the book.

The film, like the book, doesn’t portray women well. The nurses dressed in ridiculously provocative outfits, their cleavages bursting out of their uniforms, and the nudity seemed a little gratuitous (though it was nice to see a full 70s bush on screen, as opposed to the pre-pubescent wax look we expect to see today!). But overall, it was a good effort and a film I enjoyed much more than I expected to. Not a patch on the book, but not many movie adaptations are, of course.

[EDIT: iconic director Mike Nichols died yesterday (20/11/14), so this seems like a fitting time to honour his work. Catch-22 wasn’t his most famous work, but it’s certainly up there with the greats on his filmography.]

So, my Goodreads review: five stars. I consider it a new favourite; it was thoughtful, provocative, and downright hilarious throughout. If you haven’t read it yet, get on to it, pronto.

[Coming next: The Road by Cormac McCarthy]

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