Some years ago I saw a mini-series on ABC TV which featured former Japanese POWs gathering for the annual RSL reunion on ANZAC Day. It showed – as only film can do so graphically – how an horrific past sometimes bleeds unbidden and uncontrollably into the present. Sensate memory, etched deeply into the brain by trauma or torture, can be triggered by simple everyday things. A scent, a sound, or an even a fleeting part of an image that was also present during the trauma can provoke bizarre and often distressing behaviour when that memory surfaces into everyday life far removed from the initial experience.
School teachers, of course, are not psychiatrists, but because I have worked with refugee children for most of my career, I took a course in how best to help victims of torture and trauma. One of the recommended strategies I have used the most is to gently encourage the student to make a narrative of the experience. It doesn’t work for everyone, and of course it’s no substitute for professional care with severely traumatised people, but sometimes, the process of telling the story somehow disempowers that unruly sensate memory and displaces it with narrative. Which, unlike sensate memory which simply floods into the present, can be controlled.
Mark Dapin has built an engrossing story around this strategy. Spirit House, longlisted for the 2012 Miles Franklin Award, tells the story of Jimmy Rubens, a former Japanese POW who in his old age is increasingly subject to episodes of very odd behaviour. A secular Jew and survivor of the horrors of the Thai-Burma railway, he is haunted by his experiences and the ghosts of his dead mates. His wife vacillates between fond tolerance and outraged exasperation until she cannot take his bizarre behaviour any longer, and seeks refuge with a friend. And this leaves Jimmy alone with only his thirteen-year-old grandson David for company.
David’s parents are of the ‘Me’ generation and their need for ‘space’ with their new lovers means that David has been dumped on his grandparents. His earnest but often amusing voice tells most of the story. He shares his confused thoughts about his own problems but mostly he recounts his adventures with his dotty old grandfather. He wags school to go down to the RSL club with Jimmy and his mates Solly, Katz and Myer, but when they’re on their own, he pesters Jimmy to tell him about the War. Jimmy’s initial reluctance gives way to a flood of stories, from his confident enlistment to the anguish of surrender and his appalling experiences as a prisoner of the Japanese.
What saves this book from being maudlin, sentimental or a catalogue of horrors is the characterisation and dialogue. Jimmy and his mates puncture each other’s hilariously self-deprecating Jewish jokes and they deflate any signs of being ‘up yourself’. Most effectively of all, Jimmy tells the story of his war and captivity in the grand tradition of the Australian Tall Story, his exaggerations and humour often making it seem like a Boys’ Own Adventure that it never was. Dapin deftly manipulates his material so that on the one hand David complains to himself that he’s not interested in Jimmy’s poignant longing for a girl he met in Singapore just before the surrender, he wants to hear about guns and fighting; and on the other hand Jimmy’s comic exaggerations of life in the camp segue into the real-life excesses of Japanese atrocities so that the reader’s amused scepticism takes a jolt. These impossible cruelties did take place. They are documented war crimes.
While I felt that the book was a little longer than it needed to be, and that the unlikely ‘reunion’ in the closing chapters was unnecessary, I think that Spirit House is definitely one for the Miles Franklin short list.
See a Sensational Snippet here. Highly recommended.
Author: Mark Dapin
Title: Spirit House
Publisher: Pan Macmillan, 2011
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library
Fishpond: Spirit House