WHITE GHOSTS By Richard Carroll – A review by Tony Cole

I have just finished reading this book by a local writer and I am happy to say that I enjoyed it enormously, and also that it gave me a lot of food for thought about how the European occupation of this country was managed and Queensland came to be the place it is.

At its root, this is historical fiction based on the lives of a real local family, the Petrie family, but as they were a very significant part of the history of this part of Queensland and were also very closely involved with the Aboriginal people of the area, it is also a history of Queensland, and more significantly, Brisbane.

The story is told through the experiences of a rich cast of characters starting with the first convicts to be sent here until the end of the first world war, so it is a huge canvas that Richard uses, and in fact it is a pretty large book as well.   But he manages his story remarkably well, and it remains spellbinding right up to the last page and our sympathies with the various characters, both European and Aboriginal, remain to the very end.

The characterisation of these people, mostly actually real people, is intriguing and for my part, I found that I cared about them all, both evil and “normal”, to the end of the book, and as an Englishman who obviously didn’t grow up in Australia, it gave me a much better insight into why things are as they are here – so a useful book on a number of fronts.

White Ghosts deals unflinchingly with the horrible way that both the convicts and the Aboriginal people were treated by their masters, and gave me a much better understanding of the horrors of both colonialism and the idea that you can create a functioning country by means of convicting your poorest people and sending them there.

Altogether an intriguing and highly readable book, that held my attention till the very last page, and left me in a thoughtful state as I mulled over in my mind the many points it made about the events that happened here over the last couple of hundred years.

So I can recommend it unreservedly as an enjoyable read, a way to discover a large chunk of local history and to give you a better understanding of the relationships which we all have with the land and each other.

White Ghosts is a book that should be read and thought about by everyone in Oz.

 

The Gift of Rain

Tan Twan Eng has gifted us with a beautifully crafted historical novel set on the isthe gift of rainland of Penang off the western coast of the Malayan peninsular in the years preceding and through World War Two and the Japanese invasion. Philip Hutton’s family on his father’s side has been an institution on the island since the early days of settlement by the English, while his mother is the estranged daughter of a wealthy Chinese family. Philip is 16 when war breaks out. Apart from his friendship with a Chinese boy his age and the ever-increasing intimacy of his relationship with his Japanese sensei who teaches him Aikido, he had always been a loner, not quite fitting in with either side of his family, his difference too obvious. In Philip’s words:

That was my burden – I looked too foreign for the Chinese, and too Oriental for the Europeans. I was not the only one – there was a whole society of so-called Eurasians in Malaya – but even then I felt I would not belong among them. I felt as Endo-san and the Japanese people here must feel: they were hated by the locals as well as by the British and Americans, for their exploits in China were now becoming daily topics of debate from the street peddlers to the Europeans drinking their ice-cold gin in the Spotted Dog.

Despite the depredations of the Japanese, Philip is able to recognise a deeper aspect of their culture:

Yet I had seen another side of them – I had seen the fragile beauty of their way of life, their appreciation of the sorrowful, transient aspects of nature, of life itself. Surely such sensitivities should count?

The author paints a vivid picture of the land and evokes a strong sense of the period and the interactions of the diverse cultures in the pot pourri that is Asia as history unfolds around Philip, forcing him to make tough decisions. How do you face someone you love who has betrayed you? How do you live with yourself when you are seen as the betrayer? Just how far will you go to protect your family and your friends? And what do you have at the end of your life apart from your memories? After a particularly gruesome event during the war, Philip reflects on his position:

I led the darkened procession with only some hurricane lamps to light our way. Anger     and sorrow walked with me, joining hands with guilt – the three walls of my prison.

While the Japanese had not physically imprisoned him, Philip’s relationship with the invaders had led to his being surrounded by the barbed wire of his own tumultuous feelings from which there was no escape.

The Gift of Rain was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2007 and is a great historical novel in that it fulfils all the requirements of the genre, transporting the reader back in time to a little-known part of the world where we discover and learn about the people, their culture, their hopes and desires, and come away with a sense of having gained in knowledge.