This is the second to last of the books I am reading for the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards.
Ken Catran is a very experienced writer of books for children and young adults, and writing for Television. This means that this novel feels very assured. To learn more about the author, click here.
The story begins in Singapore,1942, after the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbour. Phillip Hayes is a civilian engineer on his way back to New Zealand to rejoin his wife and son. Unfortunately, he meets an Indian infantry, treats them with terrible supremacy, and dies for it.
Am I to be shouted at like a dog? wondered the subedar. There were three bullets left in his revolver. He fired them all, watching without pity as the man collapsed by his car, his shirt stained red.
Part One begins, still in 1942, but in New Zealand, where the young Peter Hayes is playing war games with Barry, ‘a natural leader’ Peter is trying to impress. The ‘Japanese’ are the local Marist boys on their way home from choir practice. The flawed logic for their battle, developed by Barry, is brilliant in the way that it conveys the terrible and apparently simple arguments for any kind of prejudice and the apathy or willing blindness to its wrongness that supports it:
After all (he said) it was a known fact that Catholics obeyed the Pope – who was Italian. That Italy, Germany and Japan were the enemy was a known fact, too (Barry said). And Barry’s family had been bombed out when the Germans flattened Belfast; his granny and sister dead in the ruins of Cromwell Road. And (he said) the Irish Catholics had made that happen because they took their orders from the Pope and Hitler – and weren’t the IRA blowing up public lavatories in London? So it was alright to pretend the Catholics were Japanese so they would be ready if the invasion came.
Peter thought there were some flaws in Barry’s argument, but did not point this out.
The second chapter begins the narrative of Ng, a fourteen year old Malaysian boy who is fighting a very real battle in the jungle of Malaya, staying alive by joining the communists who are battling the Imperialists. This is a stark contrast to the previous chapter, where the game of war is ended with the sharing of humbugs behind the Presbytarian church.
Silence, then dark figures advancing warily out of the black afternoon shadows; men and women, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil, dressed in an assortment of tattered clothing. As they picked up the rifles and ammunition pouches from the crumpled bodies, one man walked up to Ng. He was Chinese, short and thickset, with heavy, strong features, and he wore a ragged army shirt and patched baggy shorts. He had a British Army belt and revolver, a sandal on one foot and a two-toed Japanese boot on the other.
He looked down at the quivering Eurasian, then gestured to Ng to get up. ‘Why did the patrol stop you?’
Northern Malay-Chinese, Hakku perhaps, thought Ng. There was a dull splashing sound behind them as the bodies were thrown into the paddy.
Ng is forced to follow a leader, in a very different way to Peter, ‘Chengsai, the ironwood tree, hard enough to defy even the voracious white ants: a good nickname for a tough leader. Chengsai might be a Communist, but Ng had already decided what to do, even though his father would not have approved. So he followed Ahmed into the dark, humid forest.
As might be expected, Ng and Peter’s stories follow a trajectory that finds them both on opposite sides of the 1948 – 1954 Malayan ‘Emergency’ – the colonialist term for this war. There is an inevitability to each story that means that the reader does not take sides. Both characters are drawn with strengths and faults, and are products of their heritage.
The complications of war became a barrier for me, but I suspect would not be so much of an issue for those readers who find the strategy and battle of war good plot narrative. Also, I know very little about this conflict and the factions involved, so this became confusing for me as well.
The biggest barrier for me was that I did not like Peter as a character, at all. So, I didn’t really care about his story. There were confusing elements that were probably supposed to show a more sensitive side to his nature, such as his love of poetry and drawing – but they never really contributed to who he was. They were very much side issues which had to be drawn to our attention every now and then.
As for Ng, he never allowed us to really know him. Appropriately for the plot, Ng had to be a little chameleon-like, to survive. And, although he had some great moments in the story, we only ever got to watch him, rather than become acquainted with him.
I read this book just over a week ago, and left writing a review about it because I hoped that it would reveal more to me as I thought it through. There are some very good elements to this book, and it is well constructed and well written. For me, it was not engaging, but I think there are many people that would find it engaging. I have put some links below to other reviews that perhaps have more connection to this book.