Ann Bennett’s Bamboo Heart begins with Tom Ellis, a captive of the Japanese working on the Death Railway in 1943, in solitary confinement. It is in these opening pages and the narrow confines of his pit prison that we learn what gives him the will to live. Tucked in his chest pocket is a photograph of a young Eurasian woman from Penang, Joy De Souza – this is but one of the threads in Bennett’s first installment of her WWII trilogy.
Bennett has given us a hybrid of sorts with alternating narratives between Tom Ellis and Laura Ellis, his daughter, a lawyer living in London in 1986. Tom’s narrative involves several non-linear time-splits of his pre-war life as a lawyer in London living out days of drudgery, and then as a young man managing a rubber plantation in Penang. Here we get a real sense of Tom’s paradisiacal life in colonial Malaya – you can almost taste the gin sling on your lips; and we also learn of Tom’s love affairs, first with a married British socialite and then with a young Eurasian school teacher. The delicacies of the latter relationship in 1943 are not lost on the author as Tom naively tries to take Joy, whom he is courting, to the Penang club where it is an unspoken rule to only serve Europeans.
Even when Tom joins the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force, training on an old playing field after work, practicing rifle handling with broom handles (there were no rifles) there is a sense that nothing will ever break the cycle of tennis matches, dinner parties and drinks at the club: “There was usually a certain kind of bonhomie during training, but the news from Europe and the steady build-up of British forces on the Malay Peninsula tempered their sense that this was all just a jolly jape. Perhaps […] they would actually be mobilised […] But it was scarcely believable they assured themselves.” (199)
The time shifts relieve the reader from the well-researched brutalities of life in the camp on the Death Railway and save the novel from the weight of mere history lessons. These extended periods of reverie occur throughout the novel and it is the reader’s job to ascertain where all the fragments piece together – one that parallels Laura’s quest.
Tom’s story is about survival and courage, the will to live and endure, and about the comradeship between prisoners of war. Bennett’s inspiration for Tom’s narrative was her father’s own history as a POW on the Death Railway.
The alternating narrative is that of Laura, Tom’s daughter, set in London during the Wapping riots in 1986. Laura’s narrative follows a sequential structure and is shorter in length. Following her father’s death associated with a condition known as “bamboo heart,” (common of POW’s who have suffered malnutrition) Laura decides to delve into his POW past. This is something Tom had always remained silent about. A sense of guilt from throwing away a letter of her father’s with a Penang postmark as a teenager before he had a chance to read it also spurs on her efforts.
Laura’s voice has an authenticity about her, perhaps reflective of the author’s own life as a young lawyer in London at the time of the Wapping riots – an event that places Laura’s (and Tom’s) life in historical perspective. Unfortunately, it does little else to push the plot along. Thankfully, the story picks up again as she and boyfriend, Luke, journey to Thailand to take the River Kwai train towards the Burmese border. This journey does much to rescue the reader from losing interest in Laura as she scrambles to find out the significance of the letter she threw away and make sense of the few odds and ends Tom has left behind – a photograph of Joy, a prewar dinner invitation to a mansion in Penang and some military badges.
Laura’s narrative is hampered by the fact that the reader already knows so much about Tom and has nearly all the answers so it is an effort to keep Laura’s search and discovery mission interesting. However, her musings and awakenings, the scenery and action on her journey along the River Kwai bring a freshness to the novel and there are still a few twists and turns for the reader in Laura’s story.
Despite Laura’s astounding self-confessed naivety she represents for the author a whole generation of people whose parents refused to talk about the war leaving a gulf in knowledge and understanding. Bennett is primarily interested in how this generation reacts and changes their perspectives once they have a deeper feeling for what their parents suffered. The trilogy which includes Bamboo Island and Bamboo Road is the culmination of one such woman’s journey of discovery to understand more about her father’s past.
Ann Bennett. Bamboo Heart. Singapore: Monsoon, 2014.
Raelee Chapman is an Australian freelance writer living in Singapore. Her short fiction and non-fiction has being published in Australia and overseas in publications such as: WellBeing, Lip Magazine, Woorilla and Southerly (The Long Paddock), Tiferet Journal, and Singapore-American newspaper.