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Posted May 23, 2008
Don't be put off by the (perhaps deliberately) mawkish title of this book, which does not even begin to capture the flavour of this uneven but gripping novel. Admittedly, it is at first hard to grasp what sort of tone Australian author Thomas Keneally, who won the Man Booker Prize in 1982 for Schindler's Ark , is gunning for in his 25th novel. The story is narrated y the elderly Grace, the remarried widow of World War II Australian captain Leo Waterhouse. He was beheaded by the Japanese in Singapore in 1945, after being captured while on a failed mission to sink Japanese boats in the Singapore harbour. Her quaintly decorous yet cheeky tone as she relates their courtship is annoyingly twee: 'At one stage outside the Braidwood School of Arts, as Leo reached for a kiss, he held my outer thigh to his and then repented of it.' It seems even more out of place in contrast to her rather robust, even macho, descriptions of her husband's experience during Operation Cornflakes, an earlier successful mission in which Leo and his teammates used small boats to creep up to Japanese ships and affix limpet mines to the hulls. Indeed, in the first half of the book, the conceit of a widow recalling the heroics of her husband seems merely a framework within which Keneally can indulge in his love for military strategems. This impression is reinforced by the fact that there are lengthy excerpts from Leo's own hand. His diaries, some even written on toilet paper while he was imprisoned in Singapore, have conveniently survived, unbelievably written in great detail and in complete sentences. But persevere and the story of handsome, noble Leo and the long-suffering Grace eventually raises discomfiting questions on the nature of heroism, which Keneally deftly dissects. Although the men's bravery and morality are admirable, the writer also tackles the human, more specifically male, yearning for adventure and glory, as epitomised in the swashbuckling Charlie 'The Boss' Doucette, the Irish mastermind behind the missions. As Grace muses at one point: 'To men of a certain kind, not to all men, but to some men in certain circumstances and under the force of certain ideas, bravery was its own end... The purpose was to be brave, the purpose was even to be doomed.' Asian readers also get the chance to see wartime Singapore through the eyes of Australians, many of whom fought and died here. There are chilling instances when familiar places and phrases are recast in a historical light, such as when the soldiers are jailed at Outram Road prison, then tried at the Japanese military court located in the then Raffles College (a forerunner of the National University of Singapore). As Grace, referring to a war buff who made a trip to post-war Singapore, writes: 'He had also kindly taken a photograph of the college motto above the gate: Auspicium Melioris Aevi, Hope For A Better Age.' It is easy to comfort ourselves with the thought that those who fall in battle died so that we can be free. The uncomfortable idea this book raises is that some men might have marched to their doom, not for the sake of freedom or justice, but for the cause of heroism itself, with death the ultimate commitment.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.