Perth is about to begin a snap three-day Covid lockdown, which means that Anzac Day this Sunday will be our second in lockdown. Services have been cancelled and driveway remembrances encouraged.
As I wrote in a blog last year, I’m always conflicted in my thoughts about Anzac Day. I turn to novels not to resolve those ambivalences but to explore them further—something that good fiction does so well.
Here are five wonderful Australian novels that give us windows into war, encouraging empathy and compassion, and it’s perhaps not surprising that they are all also stories of love…
World War I
Where the Line Breaks by Michael Burrows (Fremantle Press, 2021): my interview with Michael here
Matthew Denton, a starry-eyed Australian completing his PhD in London, is determined to prove that the Unknown Digger—Australia’s answer to England’s Soldier Poets—is none other than war hero Lieutenant Alan Lewis VC of the 10th Light Horse.
Like Lieutenant Lewis, Matthew is in love, and fighting for what he believes in—but the footnotes to Matt’s thesis come to reveal that all is not fair in love and war.
One hundred years and a lifetime’s experience apart, it becomes more and more difficult to say what makes a hero, especially if that hero is supposed to be you.
Traitor by Stephen Daisley (Text, 2011): review by Lisa, ANZLitLovers, here
What would make a soldier betray his country?
In the battle-smoke and chaos of Gallipoli, a young New Zealand soldier helps a Turkish doctor fighting to save a boy’s life. Then a shell bursts nearby; the blast that should have killed them both consigns them instead to the same military hospital.
Mahmoud is a Sufi. A whirling dervish, he says, of the Mevlevi order. He tells David stories. Of arriving in London with a pocketful of dried apricots. Of Majnun, the man mad for love, and of the saint who flew to paradise on a lion skin. You are God, we are all gods, Mahmoud tells David; and a bond grows between them.
A bond so strong that David will betray his country for his friend.
Stephen Daisley’s astonishing debut novel is a story of war and of love—how each changes everything, forever. Traitor is that rarest of things: a work of fiction that will transport the reader, heart and soul, into another realm.
The Wing of Night by Brenda Walker (Penguin, 2006): review in Sydney Morning Herald here
In 1915 a troopship of Light Horsemen sails from Fremantle for the Great War. Two women farewell their men: Elizabeth, with her background of careless wealth, and Bonnie, who is marked by the anxieties of poverty. Neither can predict how the effects of the most brutal fighting at Gallipoli will devastate their lives in the long aftermath of the war.
The Wing of Night is a novel about the strength and failure of faith and memory, about returned soldiers who become exiles in their own country, about how people may become the very opposite of what they imagined themselves to be. Brenda Walker writes with a terrible grandeur of the grime and drudge of the battlefield, and of how neither men nor women can be consoled for the wreckage caused by a foreign war.
World War II
Bodies of Men by Nigel Featherstone (Hachette, 2019): guest 2, 2 and 2 blog here
Egypt, 1941. Only hours after disembarking in Alexandria, William Marsh, an Australian corporal at twenty-one, is face down in the sand, caught in a stoush with the Italian enemy. He is saved by James Kelly, a childhood friend from Sydney and the last person he expected to see. But where William escapes unharmed, not all are so fortunate. William is sent to supervise an army depot in the Western Desert, with a private directive to find an AWOL soldier: James Kelly. When the two are reunited, James is recovering from an accident, hidden away in the home of an unusual family—a family with secrets. Together they will risk it all to find answers. Soon William and James are thrust headlong into territory more dangerous than either could have imagined.
Seeing the Elephant by Portland Jones (Margaret River Press, 2016): review by Lisa, ANZLitLovers, here
Seeing the Elephant is the poignant story of a remarkable relationship between Frank Stevens, an Australian soldier sent to the Vietnamese Highlands to recruit and train the local hill tribes during the Vietnam War, and his Vietnamese translator, Minh.
The story is told through letters from Frank to his grandfather. Seconded by the CIA, Frank has been sent to the Vietnamese Highlands to recruit and train the local mountain tribes to resist the North Vietnamese. Once Frank returns home the letters document his struggle to cope with life in Australia after the war.
Nearly fifty years later, Minh, now living in Australia and seriously ill, reads through Frank’s letters and remembers the experiences that he shared with Frank, and discovers that even amongst his traumatic memories, there is consolation and joy.