Shame and the Captives

By Thomas Kenneally

(Atria, $26, 384 pages)

Who is this author?

With 31 novels to his credit, Australian author Thomas Kenneally has earned worldwide fame and acclaim for his writing, in particular for 1982’s Booker Prize-winning Schindler’s List, the World War II drama about the German industrialist who clandestinely saved many Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis. His other books include  The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Gossip from the Forest, and Confederates, all of which were shortlisted for the Booker. He has also written a memoir, Homebush Boy, and some nonfiction,The Commonwealth of Thieves, and Searching for Schindler. He is married with two daughters and lives in Sydney, Australia.

What is this book about?

Inspired by something that happened in New South Wales in 1944, Shame and the Captives tells the story of a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Australia, told through a young farm wife whose own husband is being held in an European prison camp. She meets a young Italian anarchist also being held in the Australian camp. Assigned to work on the farm, and he begins to enlighten her about the politics and realities of war. Meanwhile, the more than 1,000 Japanese prisoners, whose culture is badly misunderstood by their captors, plan an escape, a bloody uprising with unforeseen effects on the camp and the town.

Why you’ll like it:

Kenneally is a master at taking historical fact and using it as a building block for novels that go far beyond the what and where to explain the why and how. In this one, he tells the story from multiple perspectives, the cumulative effect of which produces a remarkably moving tale that explores bravery, betrayal, loyalty and love. As our memories of World War II continue to fade, and as new wars threaten, books such as this one provide invaluable insights into the powerful emotions and cultural beliefs      that drive soldiers and civilians alike.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says:  “The author of Schindler’s List again novelizes a small yet revealing event from World War II. Based on the 1944 Cowra breakout in New South Wales, Australia, the novel interweaves perspectives of people in and around the fictional Gawell prisoner-of-war camp, where Japanese captives suffer less from conditions than from living with the shame of having been captured while more amiable Italian prisoners work on local farms, sing, or share news. The novel opens during the spring of 1943, after Italy has joined the Allies. Keneally explores the lives and innermost thoughts of, among others, Abercare, the English camp commandant trying to avoid conflict with his wife, his prisoners and his subordinates; Suttor, the radio writer in charge of Compound C, more in touch with his surly unpredictable prisoners than his commanding officer; Emily, Abercare’s unhappy wife; Nevski, the intelligent Russian-born translator. Keneally depicts the tragic reach of the war on a number of different lives, including the horror of a war crime and the neatness of the cover-up. Other writers may be more adept at portraying female emotions or dinner-party chatter, but no one equals Keneally for documenting the actions of human beings caught up in war, some desperate to hold onto their humanity, others desperate to die.

Says Library Journal:  “As in Schindler’s List, Keneally draws on actual events and uses a broad backdrop—here, World War II in the Pacific—for his tale of a POW camp located in a remote corner of Australia. Tensions arise when the camp’s commander, English colonel Ewan Abercare, disagrees with Australian major Bernard Suttor, in charge of the camp’s Compound C, over how to deal with its “most unpredictable and surly” Japanese prisoners, particularly should they attempt a breakout. Meanwhile, a nearly idyllic romance develops between Alice Herman, who runs a farm with her father-in-law while her husband is a captive of the Germans, and Giancarlo, an Italian POW assigned to work on the farm. This romance abruptly ends when the Japanese launch a breakout from the camp. The author deftly highlights the irony of Australians trying to adhere to the Geneva Convention while a prisoner on the loose concludes, “They’re mocking us by not trying to find us.” VERDICT The leisurely narrative gains force as it progresses. A fascinating aspect is the author’s treatment of the psychology of prisoners and their keepers, capped by Major Suttor’s conclusion that “the captors are prisoners too.” Highly recommended to all who appreciate a historical work told with great perception and insight.

Kirkus says, in its starred review: “In 1944, a group of Japanese POWs escaped from a prison camp in a rural Australian town. Keneally’s latest historical novel relates the lead-up to this event from the perspectives of many characters, including Japanese and Italian prisoners, the camp’s commanders and several residents of the town. Though the reader knows from the start that the breakout is imminent, thanks to an author’s note, Keneally manages to sustain the mounting tension. There are a number of compelling personalities, including the camp’s British commander, Col. Ewan Abercare, who’s trying to win back his wife’s trust after having a public affair; the commander’s distrustful underling, Maj. Bernard Suttor, creator of a popular radio serial; Tengan, a handsome and haughty Japanese airman, a leader among the zealots who dream only of death at the hands of the “enemy”; Ban, the Christian convert and outcast among his fellow Japanese, who sacrifices himself to warn the authorities about the impending breakout; and Alice Herman, a young Australian woman who falls into a steamy affair with the Italian prisoner working on her father-in-law’s farm while her barely remembered husband languishes as a POW in Austria. Keneally shares his deeply believable and flawed characters’ conflicting perspectives sensitively and with great empathy, expressing the full range of humanity in a few hundred pages. He does an extraordinary job of making all his characters compelling and sympathetic, with fully formed back stories, even those whose perspectives are likely to be the most foreign to the reader. The somewhat didactic title doesn’t do the book justice, and the occasional overwriting can be distracting. Nevertheless, Keneally blends history, romance and wartime intrigue in a remarkable piece of historical fiction with a strong sense of place and time.



When is it available?

This compelling historical novel is now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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