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Oz Lit MonthApril is Australian Literature Month at Reading Matters. Kim is also generously donating 50p for each linked review to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation which gives books to families in remote parts of Australia, which is a fab incentive to participate!

A swift perusal of my shelves came up with several authors to consider, including Kate Grenville and Tim Winton, but the book that grabbed me more than any other was:

The Widow and Her Hero
by Thomas Keneally

This novel complements my wartime reading perfectly – but looks to the consequences of war rather than its precursors.

Keneally’s novel takes its inspiration from two real covert operations carried out by the Australian equivalent of our SOE (Special Ops Exec) in which a team of commandos mined Japanese ships in Singapore. The aims were similar in intent to the British op which inspired the 1955 film Cockleshell Heroes, in which Trevor Howard led his team in canoes to raid shipping in Bordeaux.

Grace Waterhouse had only been married for a short while to the love of her life, Leo.  It was during the latter stages of WWII, and Leo was seconded to a group planning a daring raid on the Japanese ships moored in Singapore, led by a charismatic Englisman called Doucette.  Their first raid using kayaks was a big success, so they planned to do it again in a different harbour, this time using mini-submarines to get close to the boats, but it was a disaster. The group split up, but were killed or captured by the Japanese.  Leo was captured and eventually executed.

Decades after the event, Grace, now in her late eighties is still finding that it won’t let her go. She eventually remarried and had a child, but the past won’t go away and leave her with good memories of Leo. There were people involved who have personal burdens they still need to unload, there are researchers and authors determined to find out exactly what happened, opening cans of worms with each new piece of evidence they uncover.

I knew in general terms that I was marrying a hero. The burden lay lightly on Leo, and to be a hero’s wife in times supposedly suited to the heroic caused a woman to swallow doubt or to understate her demands. Although, as much as women now, we suspected men might be childish or make mysterious decisions, it wasn’t our place to say it for fear of damage to the fabric of what we had. The Japanese had barely been turned back and had not abandoned the field of ambition. It was heresy and unlucky to undermine young men at such a supreme hour.

But with the confidence of near-on nine decades I can talk about doubt now. I would at least ask, what is so precious about the heroic impulse? Why do ordinary lusty boys love it better in the end than lust itself, and better than love? Why did Leo – judging by his actions – love the Boss, Charlie Doucette, in a way that rose above love of any woman, me included?

Grace gradually tells her story, how she and Leo met and fell in love, and interspersed with Grace’s recollections of her short life with Leo, are excerpts from Leo’s diaries.  We also hear from her how Leo met Doucette – somewhat bitterly, she always refers to him by his surname.  We gradually meet the other characters in their story, including Leo’s colleague Rufus Mortmain and his wife Dottie, who becomes her best friend when the two young couples share a large apartment while they plan the operations.  Then there is the American Colonel Creed who is the liaison with General MacArthur, whom Doucette doesn’t trust.

In later life, Grace has found the pressures of being the widow of a hero very trying. She knows that Leo was a hero, but she hasn’t ever understood his boyish devotion to Doucette, the man who would lead them all to their deaths. There was no doubting of their bravery, but it is the fundamental sense of some element of foolhardiness that she struggles to come to terms with.

With every reveal, we find out more about the true characters of all involved. It’s gripping stuff. In the latter stages, it doesn’t make for easy reading though, as what happened becomes clear, but it allows Grace to come to terms with Leo’s death.

Keneally’s novel is a powerful exploration of what happens to grief and memory when it is modified, when beliefs have to be changed.  It questions what a hero is, but the fundamental love beneath lives on.  Great pacing, great complexity, great questions, great insights.  This novel evoked complex and confusing emotions as I read, trying to understand Leo and Grace’s situations. A thought-provoking read – I highly recommend this book.

* * * * *
I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Widow and Her Hero by Thomas Keneally, Sceptre paperback, 264 pages.
Cockleshell Heroes [DVD]

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