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August 2014 travel news 43
The Shame and the Prisoners
by Thomas Keneally
Thomas Keneally can usually be relied upon
as a storyteller par excellence. His latest novel
is again based on historical events, although
in his introduction he explains where and why
he has deviated from the facts of something
that actually happened. The narrative is built
round a Japanese prisoner of war break-out
in Australia during World War II.
The Japanese regarded wartime captivity as
the ultimate disgrace: one should either die
honourably in battle, or take one’s own life.
This philosophy explains why they treated
their war prisoners as beneath contempt. All
may be fair in love and war, with the exception
of the Japanese interpretation, which flouted
every rule of the Geneva Convention.
The story concerns mainly the Japanese
prisoners themselves and the planning
towards their escape, which happens in
approximately the last third of the book. The
rest is mainly a build-up of information about
the main characters. Prison life appears
benign in comparison with what happened in
There are numerous sub-plots concerning
local characters - commandant Colonel Ewan
Abercare and his uncomfortable relationship
with his colleague Major Suttor, not to mention
with his, Abercare’s, semi estranged wife.
Major Suttor has a POW son in Japan, while
Alice Duncan’s husband, a prisoner of the
Germans, is detained in Austria. Giancarlo an
Italian prisoner working on a farm on parole,
contributes his own particular involvement
with these others, adding to the overall
drama of the escape. But it is the prisoners
of Compound C who dominate the scene
throughout, almost too much so sometimes.
Initially the book moves slowly, more
contemplative than active, only picking up
speed towards the end. Even then it remains
more a philosophical essay on the prisoners’
obsession with honourable death rather than
having to return home in shame.
The end arrives abruptly, as though once the
main drama is over Keneally suddenly loses
interest in his characters. The content is
appealing and with such wide scope it would
be difficult to draw the threads together.
Nonetheless, one longs to know more: did
those who returned to Japan ever get ‘found
out’ for being locked away, or did this remain
their dark secret for ever? What happened to
the young Italian?
Keneally could have dealt better with his plot
construction: it remains interesting rather
than gripping, and rather misses the mark
compared to ‘The Daughters of Mars’ which
was so vividly real.
The Mystery of Princess Louise
by Lucinda Hawksley
Despite producing nine children, Queen
Victoria was far from maternal, probably
because of her own unhappy childhood. She
was possessive, jealous of her family, and
frequently cruel. Louise and her brother Bertie
(later Edward VII) suffered most. Victoria
branded them ‘mentally retarded’, but all the
children remained damaged emotionally for
life in one way or another. Resentful too of
any friendships between her children, Victoria
unfailingly tried to drive them apart.
Attractive, exceptionally artistic, Louise was
the family’s ‘changeling child’ who grew to
be a woman well ahead of the beliefs of her
time. She encouraged women’s education,
universal suffrage and was deeply concerned
about social issues. She counted Pre-
Raphaelite artists, social reformer Josephine
Butler, Elizabeth Garrett, the first woman
doctor, and ‘scandalous’, George Eliot among
A no-nonsense personality, although tall,
elegant and beautiful, Louise was popular,
partly because she treated people as equals.
Determined to break away from Victoria’s
suffocating modus vivendi, she made herself
a career as a gifted sculptor and artist. Her
marriage to Lord Lorne was not a happy one.
Although he was a Duke’s son, he was the
first ‘commoner’ to marry royalty. Displeased,
Victoria made it quite clear to Lorne that it
was HER happiness rather than Louise’s
that Lorne must consider first. “No married
daughter is of any use”, she declared.
Despite Victorian morality’s restrictions,
Louise conducted numerous love affairs.
How she got away with it is part of the book’s
‘mystery’ and like her brother Bertie she had
a strong sex-drive. More a man’s than a
woman’s woman, she loved to flirt and other
wives often regarded her as a threat, although
conversely she had many close women
friends. Unlike her mother, she did not lack a
sense of humour.
Hawksley brings Louise to life brilliantly, giving
us intimate glimpses into the Royal Household
and the Queen’s
amusing quote shows how the Royal children
hated Balmoral holidays, not to mention
John Brown. Leopold, writing to Louise says:
“-------tomorrow we go to that most VILE and
most ABOMINABLE of places Balmoral”.
Few literary genres compete with a good
biography, and this one gains full marks.
Hawksley is directly descended from Charles
Dickens and has inherited his story-telling
gift. She has chosen a fascinating subject
and, despite extreme unforeseen difficulties,
researched it brilliantly. Louise’s story could
be the plot for a fast-moving and probably
best selling novel.
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