Category Archives: WW II

‘Warlight’ by Michael Ondaatje

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It is 1945. 14 year old Nathaniel and his 16 year old sister Rachel find themselves abandoned by their parents. As it is both of them were secretive about their war time work. The kids are flabbergasted by yet anoththey were told of the departure, no further details were given. The confusion turns into a sense of betrayal when they find their mother’s luggage that should have been with her, in their basement. They are left in the care of a character they call ‘The Moth’ , a strange man who had been inhabiting the upper floor of their house.

The first half of the story weaves itself around the strange characters that float in and out of their home, The Moth’s friends. The Darter, Olive, the ethnologist, the Russian woman that was Darter’s girlfriend and so on. Each of them include one or the other of the kids in their strange occupations and influence them in their growing up years one way or the other. Meanwhile, Nathaniel starts working in the kitchen of a restaurant where he strikes up a friendship with a girl called Agnes. They meet up at night in houses put up for sale, letting themselves in with keys borrowed from Agnes’s real estate agent brother. The life that has now become normal comes to an abrupt halt with an almost catastrophic event that turns fatal to one of the characters.

The second half finds us years later with Nathaniel trying to piece together the years of his uncertainty as well his mother’s life, from her childhood, youth and marriage, the war years and post that and her professional and personal relationship with the suave and enigmatic Felon Marsh. Each earlier character’s role is revealed slowly. The story ends with an extremely unexpected twist that reminds us of Julian Barnes’s ‘The Sense of an Ending’.

That Michael Ondaatje is a writer unparalleled is a given fact. He doesn’t let the reader down, yet again. Lives entwine each other, threads that were unraveled once get caught up with each other again and there is vengeance, but with a cause. Every act has a reason for the actors, but do they know the consequences fully? Once they come to know of it, are they penitent or do they accept it and go on with their lives? The ongoing thread seem to be how your acts are never left dangling in the air, that there are always after effects.

The language as expected is exquisite. It caresses you as you feel for each of the characters. And the final twist is something you would never imagine.

If you love well etched characters, a story that flows gently like a calm river (who said war stories have to be violent?) and an ending that makes you gasp at first and then accept it and go on without upsetting the applecart as Nathaniel did, do not miss it.

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‘The Gift of Rain’ by Tan Twan Eng

rainThese days it is a rare miracle to get the time, temperament and the right kind of book to read for hours at a stretch and finish it in one go. As you get to explore more and more authors and genres, you realize, with some sadness, that it is getting increasingly difficult to satisfy the growing soul that is you. So you flit from one book to another, trying to find that magic that once was there in every story that you read. You long for that time when each author was fairy god mother  or father as the case maybe, with a bottom less hat from which tale after enchanted tale was pulled out.

Then, out of the blue, like a long lost rainbow, you meet authors like Tan Twan Eng, who ensnare you with the lyrical quality of their writing, sears you to the core with the stories they have to tell and leaves you with an ache that saddens you and a pain that turns into the joy of something essentially good. My first meeting with him was more than an year ago and quite accidental. The cover caught my eye and the blurb gave a go ahead to the heart (yes, some books have to be read with your heart and soul). It took me a while to come out of ‘The Garden of  Evening Mists’, in fact, each time I read a mention of it, a cool and gentle breeze descends on my soul.

‘The Gift of Rain’ is Tan’s debut novel and it has been calling out to me for quite some time. The fear of being disappointed was pulling me back, till a few Saturdays ago I decided to get drenched. The opening lines were more than enough to hook me

“I was born with the gift of rain, an ancient soothsayer in an even more ancient temple once told me.”

The Penang Historical Society was planning to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Second World War as Philip Hutton receives a visitor who would take him back to his youth and force him to open some wounds that he had kept hidden, somewhere deep inside, never opening it out to anyone, leaving it to fester and killing him slowly and painfully.

Born of a British father and a Chinese mother, young Philip feels he belongs neither here nor there. He feels alien to his elder, all British siblings – two brothers and a sister. His mother had passed away when he was young, and the only contact he has with the mother’s side of family is an aunt. At sixteen, he finds himself alone in their large bungalow by the sea, his father and siblings in England on their annual sojourn. And to his life appears Endo san,  a Japanese aikijutsu master. As the cliche goes, Philip’s life will never be the same again.

There is an unspoken closeness between the master and his student right from the beginning, as if they have known each other for more than a lifetime. As the bond grows stronger each day, it is also evident to the reader that there is more to Endo san than what meets the eye. It is not that Philip is not aware of this as well, but he chooses to ignore the obvious as many a young one is wont to. As Japan prepares for war overtly in other places and covertly in Malaya, the natives and British continue to go about their lives as though they are invincible. Philip is innocently pulled into the quagmire and inadvertently paves the way for setting the base for a Japanese invasion.

At the same time, there is a transformation that is happening silently within Philip. He comes to terms with his parentage, his families on both sides, and finally he is at peace with who he is. The tragedy begins at this point, unfortunately. Soon as he finds his space, the very root of his love and convictions are tested, to a limit that seems almost beyond endurance.

If Part One of the story is about Philip’s coming of age and of being a family, the real soul of the story is in Part Two. The war is in earnest, Philip is seen as an enemy by many and as a closest ally by others. The fact that he is working for the Japanese is enough for many to condemn him. Even the ones that he helps, seem to question his motives. With almost all whom he loved turning against him, his biggest pain is the knowledge of betrayal by his trusted master and love, Endo san.

The eternal tug of war between duty and love, fate and choice, family and friends is brought out beautifully in the second part. It takes more than a strong will to stand firm when everything that you believed in and everyone whom you loved turns against you. And then comes the feeling that would shatter even the strongest ones,

“And I realized then that there was an emotion worse even than the sharpest fear; it was the dull feeling of hopelessness, the inability to do anything.”

It takes Philip almost half a century to come to terms with the war and his part in it. There is a multitude of nuances that run beneath the story and which holds it together, threads that are as fine as silk and unbreakable at the same time. The relationship between the master and student, the soft undercurrents of sexuality, the unequivocal love between an English man and a Chinese woman, the common love for someone who is no more that brings together conflicting cultures and transcends pride and finally, the acceptance,

“Accept that there are things in this world we can never explain and life will be understandable. That is the irony of life. It is also the beauty of it.”

In short, a tale so well told that after ages, all I did on a Saturday was just read. Everything else was incidental.

Verdict – I was ready to judge it  a little above a  customary okay, till Part Two happened. Read it if you love stories that question your ideals, makes you think about coincidences, choices, duty, love and a little bit about what this life is all about.

4.5/5

 

‘The Buddha in the Attic’ by Julie Otsuka

buddha The story of a whole generation in less than 130 pages, difficult to believe, isn’t it?  Yet, this book , all of eight chapters, covers the life saga of a group of Japanese mail order or picture brides as they were called.  A group of young and some not so young women on a ship that is taking them to a land of promises and men they have seen only in pictures.  They are confused, anxious, scared and most of all hopeful of escape from a life that would otherwise have been condemned to penury and boredom.

The narration is what catches you by the throat. There is no single protagonist, the whole story is told in first person plural, the collective and all encompassing ‘We’. Their life is divided into and completely told in about eight chapters, starting with their experiences in the ship, the first night with the husbands who are nowhere near to the picture that they had painted in their hearts, the whites around, their children, the masters and the mistresses and so on. Their story starts to end with the second world war, when anything even remotely Japanese is seen with suspicion and hatred and finally how even the smallest trace of a whole race fades into oblivion.

The strong punch that Julie Otsuka has packed into a small wine glass is so potent, you are left with a strong ache for almost each of the hundreds of characters that she tells us about. You can read the life story of a person in a single sentence,..

“One swore she would one day marry a preacher so she wouldn’t have to pick berries on Sundays. One wanted to save enough money to buy his own farm. …One wanted to plant a vineyard….One could not wait until the day she got off the ranch. One wanted to go to college even though no one she knew had ever left the town. ..One wanted something more but could not say exactly what it was. …One wanted her own room, with a lock on the door…One wanted to become an artist and live in a garret in Paris….One wanted to become a doctor…. One wanted to become a star. And even though we saw darkness coming we said nothing and let them dream on.”

Verdict : A poignant life tale, read it for the interesting narrative style and the sad, shocking story that it tells us.

4/5

‘The Chosen’ by Chaim Potok

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I chanced upon this gem of a tale in the course of a search for an age appropriate book for my 11 year old son. Set in the background of the United States during the second World War, era, the story starts with a baseball game between two rival Jewish schools. The match predictably ends in an injury that portends the beginning of a life long friendship between two boys – Reuven and Danny.

Danny and his father has a very strange relationship that Reuven finds to be very cold and strange. Having been brought up by a father who is very open in his interactions and is liberal in his outlook, he just cannot fathom why things are as it is with his friend. The growing friendship between the two boys is very obvious in the narration, what is hidden and what is more relevant is the strong influence of the fathers on each other. Reb Saunders, Danny’s father do not approve of Reuven’s father’s ideologies, but he acknowledges and even encourages the friendship. It is as if each father nudges their offspring towards the other, its a subtle message of love that they have for their sons, their deep longing to see the boys finding happiness in their lives.

Reb Saunders comes across as an extremely orthodox and rigid person, and this is in stark contrast to David Malter who considers his son as an equal and treats him so. The story covers a period of about six years and takes us through the coming of age of the two boys. It tells us how religious bigot-ism and changing political situations can affect even the closest of relationships and how true friendship can stand the test of time and trials. More importantly, it portrays the deep love a father has for his son, the price that he is willing to pay is that very relationship that he treasures the most.

What I loved the most is the easy connect between Reuven and his father and how he guides the confused youngsters towards their true destinies.

Verdict : A must read for young boys and their fathers , as well for mothers and daughters 🙂