Death of a Coastwatcher by Anthony English, Monsoon Books, Burrough on the Hill, 2020, 464pp. ASIN B08LR4YGP8. Available here from Amazon Australia: paperback AU$15.75, Kindle AU$9.35
TUMBY BAY - It may be a product of my advanced age but I have developed a distinct aversion to the depiction of violence and other extremes of human behaviour in literature and film.
My preferred recreational reading and viewing nowadays centres mainly on the gentle and whimsical. This is a genre in which the British excel but seems rare in America and Australia.
It was therefore with trepidation that I approached ex-kiap, Tony English’s book, Death of a Coast Watcher.
I had read the first few pages in online promotions depicting the torture and beheading by the Japanese of an Australian coastwatcher on Bougainville in World War II.
Although I shuddered at the thought of what the rest of the book might contain, eventually curiosity got the better of me.
So I bit the bullet and ordered a copy. The threat in those first few pages proved prescient.
The book is relentlessly depressing in its depiction of the human condition. People and place are portrayed in all their appalling composition.
Along the way the author also gives a good hammering to the concept of the coastwatcher as hero.
The executed coastwatcher, Hugh Rand, is a complex and conflicted character whose psychological aberrations become manifest after he is dropped on Bougainville by submarine.
Those who come into his orbit in his speedy pursuit and capture by the Japanese are left haunted by what happens to him, while those who come after are caught up in an obsessive quest to explain the enigma that he represents.
It is this device that the author uses to get inside the heads of his characters to ruthlessly explore a range of moral issues centred on human behaviour, personal desperation and innate prejudices, including perhaps some of his own.
Among the major targets are national culturalism and the savagery that it sanctions, both in war and peace. He also has a crack at academic elitism and the nasty insouciance and brain-fogging rituals it involves.
You don’t have to agree with what English says but the observations and arguments he channels through his characters make up a major interest in the book and certainly kept me reading.
The chief female protagonist, the wife of a kiap who has largely been responsible for his suicide, is perhaps the most interesting. The way the kiap kills himself is fascinating.
The narrative is wordy and little is left to the reader’s imagination. The repetitive analysis of Hugh Rand’s character and motivations from different angles serves to maintain the depressed tone of the book.
This is not a criticism because it is obviously part of the author’s plan and works well.
It is not difficult to work out where the story is going. There are plenty of clues and coincidences along the way to make this plain even if the outcome is not revealed.
In the end the extended denouement involves a stylistic and erotic exchange between the two main surviving characters leavened with a healthy dose of sadomasochism.
As the book’s blurb points out, the main attraction of the novel is not so much the plot and narrative but the potpourri of ideas it explores along the way.
“The layers unfold as the author entices us through cultural, historical and intellectual curtains, deep into minds and relationships disturbed by the Pacific War and Rand’s legacy,” it explains.
If you are interested in the ANZAC spirit and other Australian sacred cows there is much to think about in this book.
And if you are interested in literature there are also some thought-provoking questions to ponder.
In the meantime I intend to get back to Mma Precious Ramotswe and Alexander McCall Smith’s latest The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency novel - his 22nd – The Joy and Light Bus Company.