Allen & Unwin
Read from my local library
It is 1942 and Australia is in the midst of yet another war. The government is taking no chances and has rounded up anyone who is of the descent of the enemy: Japanese, German, Italian, etc and put them into internment camps.
Dr Ibaraki works in a Japanese hospital in Broome and although he escaped the early rounding up due to his profession, he has finally been arrested and sent to Loveday internment camp in a remote desert corner of South Australia. It is dusty, dry and hot in summer and cold during winter.
Populating the camp are men of a mix of ethnicity, culture and allegiance. There are men who were born in different Asian countries, men who were born in Australia, even men who were born to one Australian parent. Time in the camp challenges Ibaraki’s beliefs and the way in which he views people that he thought he knew.
Last year I read a list of 50 exciting books by Australian women and ended up noting down maybe a dozen that I hadn’t read and that I thought sounded like something I’d be interested in. This was one of them and I requested it from my local library, picking it up just before Christmas. I’ve read several books that make mention of German or Italians who were taken into internment camps but this is the first time I’ve read something about someone of Japanese heritage. Dr Ibaraki came to Australia to work in a Japanese hospital in Broome, treating mostly the Japanese community. He works closely with a nun from a local order who serves as his nurse and it’s through some of his memories of conversations with Sister Bernice that the reader learns a lot about him. As the book progresses, more and more of his past in Japan is revealed, such as his crumbling marriage and his job working in a medical research facility that valued discretion and loyalty above pretty much all else.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like for some of these people, to be taken away from their homes of years (or in some cases, pretty much their whole lives) and taken to a remote camp in the desert. When Ibaraki arrives, they sleep in tents with construction on cabins beginning for the chilly desert winter. Although they seem to be fed relatively well and have access to purchasing things like cigarettes which they afford by working in the camp, it must be somewhat humiliating and depressing to be incarcerated simply because of birth or parental heritage. Ibaraki sees many that are loyal to the Emperor and cheer the Japanese victories an refuse to believe the Allied advancement but he also sees people who were born in Australia, where it’s all they have ever known. Because of their reluctance they are branded troublemakers, half-castes who are neither Asian nor Australian. Ibaraki struggles when he is told that someone he respects and admires is involved in a horrible and violent act – he refuses to believe that it could possibly true and is certain at first that it’s the “half-caste” troublemakers that are lying. His lack of belief does have some far-reaching repercussions and it does take a tragic act, a case of mistaken identity and a bad situation for Ibaraki to begin to question everything he knows.
I found Ibaraki an interesting character. He strikes me as being “very Japanese” although at the same time that also sounds kind of weird because what does that mean? He’s quiet, measured, thoughtful. He’s a doctor but readily admits that patient relations are the part of his job that he struggles with. At times he seems socially awkward and lacking in the ability to relate to other people and this is made even more evident when he reflects on what went wrong within his marriage. He seemed to do little in order to dispel his wife’s fears and misconceptions and although some of that was very much tied up in the confidential nature of the job he was doing and how he was bound by silence, there were ways in which he could have reassured her and made her feel better. Instead he did nothing, perhaps a result of all the pressure placed upon him but also because I’m not entirely sure he knew how.
The reader doesn’t need Ibaraki to confirm exactly what sort of work he was doing in Japan before he came to Australia. It’s horrific and it’s something he clearly struggles with and yet at the same time I think he’s a man of honour so he believes that he must do the job he gave his word to do. I feel like perhaps some of his feelings were tied up in his father and how he felt about that as well as how he got the job in the first place. It’s beautifully understated how what he was doing plays on his mind for a long, long time.
I think the conflict in the internment camp was very well done. The men were all different, some had never been to Japan, some had been born in Australia, others like Ibaraki had chosen to come to Australia and were perhaps disillusioned with the sort of thing that was being done in the name of the Emperor. For all their differences, they all wanted the same thing: to be able to go home. Wherever that home may be. It’s funny how it was the people that were treated as the danger when it was the war they had little or nothing to do with that was preventing them from living the life they wanted to.
After Darkness was the winner of the Vogel’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript by an author under 35. Its list of previous winners is something to behold: Tim Winton, Kate Grenville, Gillian Mears and Andrew McGahan to name just a few. Having read this, it’s not hard to imagine Christine Piper sitting beside them.
Book #17 of 2015
After Darkness is book #6 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015