Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 6, 2014

Shame and the Captives (2013), by Thomas Keneally

Shame and the CaptivesAs you will know if you saw the Sensational Snippet that I posted just a few days ago, Shame and the Captives is a fictionalisation of the Cowra Breakout, an event that I first learned about some years ago when I visited the Cowra Japanese Garden in Cowra, NSW.  Tom Keneally has revisited this event to explore themes of shame, honour, religion and hope whilst also showing the tragedy of human frailty.

I read somewhere recently that Keneally’s oeuvre is akin to Honoré de Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine (Human Comedy).  I think this is an apt description.  While he does not recycle his characters as Balzac does, linking them together across time and place in 19th century France, Keneally’s sturdy realism depicts Australian life across the turbulent 20th century, exploring human frailty that is indeed reminiscent of La Comédie Humaine.  While the French Revolution and its chaotic political, economic and social aftermath lies at the heart of Balzac’s concerns, Keneally takes the broad sweep of Australia’s 20th century, especially its wars.

Excluding the frontier conflicts that characterise Australia’s Black History, the Cowra breakout was one of the few occasions when blood was shed on Australian soil during wartime.  We fight our wars overseas, and with the exception of the 1942 Japanese midget submarines entering Sydney Harbourthe air raids on Darwin and Broome and attacks on coastal shipping, Australia’s casualties died in overseas theatres of war.  The Cowra Breakout was remarkable for being so unexpected, and for its shocking loss of life: four Australian and 231 Japanese soldiers.  Keneally brings this story to life with his trademark realism though in his introduction he is at pains to stress that the characters are genuine works of fiction, and he renames the town Gawell. (If you pronounce it ‘gawl’ as in ‘galling’, this apparently clumsy name seems very apt).


Cowra POW camp 1944. Source: Wikipedia Commons

While the first chapter sets the scene with the introduction of Aoki, repatriated to post-war Japan but still smarting from his failure to die with honour, the world that Keneally creates in the rest of the book is unsophisticated, quiet, mundane.   The POW camp seems like an aberration in the ‘daily tedium’ of the peaceful farms where the war seems far away.  But for some characters, significantly, it’s not: Alice Herman has a husband who’s a POW in Germany, and Major Bernard Suttor has a son captured by the Japanese.  Both Alice and Suttor harbour an irrational hope that their loved ones will be well-treated in captivity if they treat the Gawell POWS humanely, and this impulse impacts on their decision-making in ways that they are unable to articulate to anyone else.

For Alice, too newly wed to know how or if her marriage might progress when her husband comes home, kindness to Italian POWs set to work on the farm becomes more than that.  Hers is not the only impulsive relationship, the English camp commandant Colonel Abercare has a rocky marriage due to a previous folly, and this motif is a reminder that in war, the testing of human relationships is complicated yet further by the exigencies of military requirements.  In the army the soldier goes where he is posted.  He gets leave, or doesn’t, at times that don’t suit the need to patch things up with a wife.

The town is a microcosm of life, with an especially memorable minor character: Mrs Cathcart.  She runs a support group for the wives of POWS, a worthy woman but Alice finds her Pollyanna optimism exasperating.  The moment when she finally stands up to Mrs Cathcart’s insistent bullying is splendidly liberating, but – it’s a country town – and she will live to regret it and she knows it!

The story travels well, the tension gradually rising as the fanaticism of the Japanese POWs becomes more clear.  Keneally explores the religious beliefs of some of his characters: the Roman Catholic Emily Abercare, the dominant Protestantism in the town, and the Buddhism of one of the POWs, but it is the quasi-religious Japanese devotion to the notion of death as redemption which drives the action of the novel towards its bloody conclusion.

The compounds of the camp sharply delineate ethnic differences: the Italians are amiable, disinterested in a war they had little commitment to anyway, and trustworthy.  Their voices amplify the local Roman Catholic choir; they have comparative freedom on the farms to which they are allocated; and exemplified by Giancarlo on the Herman farm, they are invited to eat – and have a drink with – the family.  But the Japanese remain remote, alien, sullen and obstructive throughout the novel.  Their attitudes are inexplicable; one senses that even the author finds their love of death both ridiculous and alarming.

There are other aspects of the characterisation of the Japanese that will surprise: there is eroticism and sexuality which made me wonder if anyone will ever tackle that hot potato in the context of the Allied POW experience.  There were also segments which illustrate the now horribly familiar barbarism of Japanese victors in South East Asia: these atrocities – while presented in the context of shame if not regret – reinforce the lack of humanity that is an ineradicable aspect of Japanese military behaviour in WW2.

Shame and the Captives is a thought-provoking book that seems very timely.  This year is the anniversary of the beginning of ‘the war to end all wars’.  There will be no escaping the memorialising of that conflict.  But in this book, set in the somnolent winter sunshine of western NSW, Keneally has captured a side of military conflict that is rarely explored in historical novels set in wartime.

As always, I look forward to his next novel – if only I could keep up with his output!

©Lisa Hill

Author: Tom Keneally
Title: Shame and the Captives
Publisher: Vintage Books (Random House), 2013
ISBN: 9780857980991
Source: personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books, $32.95

PS Don’t read the review at The Guardian by Carmel Bird, it gives away massive ruin-the-book spoilers.


Fishpond: Shame and the Captives


  1. […] range across all sorts of characters and different periods of our history, most recently with Shame and the Captives (2014), The Daughters of Mars (2012) and The Widow and Her Hero (2007).  In style these are a long […]


  2. […] POW experience from different angles The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Thomas Keneally’s Shame and the Captives contribute to a richer understanding of defeat.  The Japanese treated their POWS as slave labour […]


  3. […] the POW experience from different angles The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Thomas Keneally’s Shame and the Captives contribute to a richer understanding of defeat.  The Japanese treated their POWS as slave labour […]


  4. […] POW experience from different angles The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Thomas Keneally’s Shame and the Captives contribute to a richer understanding of defeat.  The Japanese treated their POWS as slave labour […]


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