I was a little bit disappointed by this book. My Beautiful Enemy has all the right ingredients for a terrific novel, and in some ways it is exceptionally good – but somehow it didn’t quite hit the mark with me.
Cory Taylor is the award-winning author of Me and Mr Booker which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Pacific Region. She’s an author willing to take risks, and with My Beautiful Enemy has abandoned the rather predictable themes to which so many Australian authors surrender. Set in Australia during World War II, My Beautiful Enemy is the story of a young man confused by his own sexuality and conflicted by his ambivalent attitudes towards the enemy. Arthur Wheeler is a narcissistic and somewhat hypochondriac young soldier stationed at the Tatura Internment Camp when he meets – and is instantly attracted to – Stanley Ueno, a quixotic Japanese youth.
The story is narrated by Arthur and the elegiac tone is set by the wisdom of hindsight in the first paragraph:
Everybody has dreams about the life they might have led. For years I mourned the life I could have shared with Stanley if only the times had been different. I blamed my unhappiness on the war, and then I blamed it on my wives. Now I see that I was unhappy for the same reasons as everyone else, at one time or another, is unhappy. We define ourselves by what we do not have, by the people we are not, and we do this because we must. (p. 1)
Arthur’s infatuation is doomed from the outset. He is enlisted in a homophobic organisation in a homophobic society, and even if Australia had not been engaged in a vicious war with Japan, Australian racism was institutionalised by the White Australia Policy. Stanley, for his part, toys with Arthur, sometimes flirting with him and at other times breaking his heart with disdain or hostility. Like the other internees (many of whom had not lived in Japan for many years) he is torn between his affection for Australia and his loyalty to Japan, culminating in a dramatic attempt to stay here when the war is over and the Japanese are being deported. For Arthur - aware of Japanese atrocities on the battlefield, witness to the grief of his bereaved girlfriend and subject to the demonising propaganda of the enemy that occurs in any war – passion for Stanley is tinged with anguished feelings of guilt and disloyalty. The skill with which Taylor draws out these complex emotions in characters on either side of the military conflict is exceptional.
Secrecy, self-delusion and social isolation adds to Arthur’s torment. Having cut ties with his family because of his abusive father, he longs for affection and deludes himself into more than one marriage doomed to failure. However, while most of the characterisation in this novel is successful – especially the boozy matron who mothers the youths in the camp infirmary – Arthur’s first wife is never quite convincing as the devoted woman whose love for him blinds her to his flaws. I also found it hard to believe that parents of that era would discourage the marriage: when girls got pregnant out of wedlock in those days there was little alternative to a hasty marriage. But then, I found it similarly hard to believe that Arthur would use such coarse language in letters to his girlfriend May (p.72). My knowledge of men of that generation was that while they swore like troopers in places like pubs and building sites from which women were excluded, they had a rather quaint notion of protecting women from bad language and would not tolerate it in family life.
However, it was the cinematic treatment of Arthur’s sudden decisions that, for me, made this novel falter. It is rare for me to suggest that a book ought to be longer, but I felt that Arthur’s desertion of May, his impulsive departure for Japan and his sudden honesty with his son needed a firmer footing in the novel. The reader suspects that these decisions are attempts at redemption but the social changes that would enable Arthur in later life to come to terms with his sexuality are missing from the background.
Phuong Dang at Japan in Melbourne admired the dialogue between Arthur and the other characters, and thought that Taylor’s skill as a scriptwriter possibly has something to do with this. Portia Lindsay at Fancy Goods found it a heartfelt and beautifully written novel about love and war for readers of exquisitely crafted literary fiction, and Mark Dapin (author of Spirit House, a book I very much admired) at The Australian felt that the camp staff had more empathy for the internees than was credible but he sees great potential in Taylor’s writing.
And so do I.
Author: Cory Taylor
Title: My Beautiful Enemy
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2013
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing