Holiday Reading - Book Review

Please note that Rev Viv has been away on leave; regular postings will recommence in October.

I picked up Bruce Courtenay' s new novel The Story of Danny Dunn because I always read a lot on holiday and wanted a thick tome that would take me more than my day or two to get through (it took four days!). I usually enjoy Courtenay's rambling historical sagas and this one promised to be interesting and engaging, because it was set in Australia and I was travelling round Queensland on holiday. Aussie was in the middle of an election quandary at the time of our trip, so the book's introduction to the main political parties (Danny becomes an MP), was helpful commentary. The story also turned out to deal with the military experiences of a man my father's age, so I found many interesting parallels in the two stories.

Like my Dad, the eponymous Danny Dunn was born in 1920, bringing his growing up years under the shadow of the Great Depression. Like my Dad, he was handsome and intelligent, and married a good woman. Like my Dad, he chose to sign up early in the war, and ended up being taken prisoner. There the similarities end, for Dad was from a farming background and Danny was raised in a pub in Sydney. And Dad came back from four years in a prison camp in Austria and is still with us in his nineties. Danny's years building the Burma railway under the cruelty of the Japanese literally scarred him for life, and he did not survive as long - but I'll let you read the book to find out what happened. It is a gripping story, marred for me by some anachronisms (Did gay men in the American South live openly as couples soon after World War II? And did we ever hear people say "sex on a stick" in the sixties?) But the saga is, for all that, utterly believable, and I personally felt quite sad and bereaved when suicide emerged as a major theme.

My most disappointing moment came when the story of Danny's extraordinary suffering in Thailand at the hands of a Japanese Camp commandant, Colonel Mori, comes full circle. Years after the war, Danny visits Japan and finds that this war criminal is living as a Buddhist monk, seemingly unpunished for his crimes. As this plot line unfolded I couldn't help but recall an moving autobiography I have read more than once, by Scotsman Eric Lomax, about his suffering while working as a POW on the Burma Railway. His story ends with an extraordinary moment of grace, when fifty years later he meets his Japanese interrogator, who asks his forgiveness, and a moving reconciliation takes place right there in Kanchanburi where the Japanese officer has contributed to the building of a museum and Peace centre. (SPOILER ALERT HERE; don't read on if you do not wish this plotline to be revealed). However Bryce Courtenay, who does not acknowledge reading Lomax's book but surely must have, takes a different tack with The Story of Danny Dunn. The old Japanese monk is dying, and Danny spits in his face and curses him. There is no peace, no reconciliation, and in the end it is clear that Danny's tortured body and soul never recover from his wartime experiences.

Final Assessment: A bit depressing, and certainly not "Courtenay at his absolute finest "as the cover blurb claims. But a good timewaster on holiday.