Tough issues explored with pinpoint accuracy
17 January 2021
Death of a Coast Watcher by Anthony English, Monsoon Books, Burrough on the Hill, UK, 2020, paperback. ISBN 9781912049707. Video trailer here. Available from the publisher here.
NORTHUMBRIA, UK - One of the books in my slim pre-1975 Papua New Guinean library is Bilong Boi, written by Keith Pickard.
It was published in 1969, concentrates on miscegenation - sexual activity between humans with different skin colours - and in literary terms is a featherweight.
It was considered lurid, even shocking, at the time and a Catholic priest demanded I stop reading it.
Its cast of characters include a bored Australian housewife who has it off with her hausboi and a lonely Australian youth who finds bush solace with a sympathetic meri.
The contrast between it and Death of a Coastwatcher, written by former kiap Tony (Anthony) English and published by Monsoon Books in November last year could hardly be greater.
Death of a Coast Watcher is heavy not just because it’s a hefty tome of 465 pages but because it is erudite in its exploration of unusually difficult issues and ideas.
The 1942-45 Pacific War and its aftermath lie at its core. But old soldiers hoping for a routine lionisation of heroic Australian diggers and vilification of dastardly Japs during the PNG campaign will be disappointed.
English, whose working career also included kiap style work in the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands (now Kiribati and Tuvalu) then development projects in Indonesia and the Philippines, is more subtle in his observations.
But he is merciless in the dissection of his characters, whether Australian or not, and often employs the hatchet precision of a butcher’s block when doing so.
Death of a Coast Watcher opens in Bougainville in 1943 where an Australian Coast Watcher is beheaded and ends in even more bloody circumstances in Kyoto 40 years later.
The original atrocity and its aftermath ultimately overwhelms many people including two Tolai women, a married couple stationed in the Gilbert and Ellice islands and the Japanese officer who ordered the execution.
There is sex (lots of it and in many shapes and forms), Aussie Pacific War myths, nauseous descriptions of cold-blooded Japanese atrocities and also humour.
The author’s mockery of the manners affected by the British ruling class in the Gilberts is delivered with pinpoint accuracy which in a quite different way is also brutal.
This does not mean the author is wicked or gratuitous. Far from it.
His greatest achievement is to have sat convincingly inside the heads of his principal characters, including the Tolai women, and relayed their most sensitive innermost feeling and thoughts.
Death of a Coast Watcher is not a beach book. It is not constructed to be skimmed and requires effort.
I would also be pleased if someone else was able to admit that one character’s beyond-the-grave intrusions into a range of present tense conversations can at times be irritating.
Be of no doubt that English must have meant it to be so. Later this year I intend to read his book a second time and digest its many messages at a slower pace. Death of a Coast Watcher deserves it.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.