Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 18, 2014

After Darkness, by Christine Piper (2014 Vogel winner)

After DarknessStephen Romei, in the blurb on the back of this award-winning novel, says that it deserves a place alongside Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Mark Dapin’s Spirit Houseand I think he’s right.  After Darkness  is indeed a remarkable novel, so accomplished in its writing and so compelling a story in the issues that it raises that I am not at all surprised that it won the 2014 Vogel Prize.

Set in a remote Australian internment camp during World War 2, After Darkness tells the story of Tomakazu Ibaraki, and his struggle to find a way to keep living after a descent to the depths of suffering.  Ibaraki has to reinvent himself when he realises that the ideals by which he has lived his life have been perverted.  His loyalty to the group rather than the individual, and his belief that his honour depends on his discretion become irrevocably associated with great evil in which he is complicit.  As I watch the ISIS atrocities on TV this week,  I wonder if a time will come when these men will confront the human suffering they have inflicted in their cause, and be appalled by their own wickedness.   Will they be like the monster in Anna Funder’s Stasiland and go to the grave still justifying their actions?  Or will they, like Ibaraki in this novel, suffer the torment of remorse?

Ibaraki’s sin occurs in Tokyo the pre-war period, and he seeks redemption working far from home in Broome.  (No, I’m not going to tell you what his sin was.  Suffice to say that I have chosen to use the word ‘sin’ rather than ‘crime’ because what he did was not only legal, it was endorsed by the authorities.)  When war breaks out he is interned, and paradoxically he almost welcomes it because the loss of freedom relieves him of responsibility, and he fears the decisions that he made when he was free.  Johnny, by contrast, is outraged by his confinement, not least because he is Australian-born,  and his anger often explodes into aggression while another internee, Stan turns in on himself because he cannot bear it.

But for Ibaraki, the pure light and clear colours of his desert prison offer the opportunity for reflection.  Forced by confinement into closer connection with others, his aloof personality is tested and found wanting.  He learns yet again that those in authority do not deserve unquestioning obedience, and that discretion is not the better part of valour.  The first person narration works well, conveying the man’s introversion with careful restraint so that his transgression is revealed only gradually:

As I considered the dirt, I could see it was indeed beautiful.  Its symmetry and iridescence suggested a human touch, much like the raked gardens of a Zen temple.  Like those gardens, the rust-coloured arc made me think of the transience of life.  And how, with just one ill wind, everything could change.  (p. 174)

One of the questions raised by this book is what should a democracy do with people who might be a threat?   Internment during WW2 gathered up many innocents and judged allegiances on racial lines.  In wartime, do niceties sometimes have to be shelved?  Or by shelving them, does a democracy descend to the level of the enemy?  After Darkness is not the first novel to explore the moral quandary of internment – David Guterson’s 1995 Snow Falling on Cedars is another, and more recently Tom Keneally’s 2013 Shame and the Captives is also set in WW2 Australia.  But After Darkness employs a more complex plot trajectory and by also raising the question what weapons are justifiable in war the novel links to our present dilemmas.   Obama has failed to resolve the problem of detainees held without trial in Guantanamo Bay, and it’s on his watch that the use of drones has become an issue.

The time-scale of Ibaraki’s story and its aftermath has an authenticity that I admired too.  The Japanese have been slow to come to terms with their war-time past, and Piper doesn’t romanticise redemption by hurrying it along.  It is, as I said above, a very accomplished novel.

Author: Christine Piper
Title: After Darkness
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2014
ISBN: 9781743319888
Source: Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin

Availability
After Darkness


Responses

  1. I’ve read a couple of reviews of this now and it’s definitely on the TBR list! Sounds like a great read.

    • I’m wondering if we’re seeing an author embarking on a great career with this book, the way that Kate Grenville winning the Vogel was a sign of things to come.

  2. Sounds so good, I’ve reserved it at the library.

    • I’m sure you’ll be impressed!

  3. […] After Darkness, by Christine Piper (see my review) […]

  4. […] Winton, Kate Grenville, Gillian Mears and Brian Castro, and more recently Christine Piper (After Darkness) and Rohan Wilson (The Roving Party) amongst others.  This year, however, the award takes me out […]

  5. […] Christine Piper’s stunning novel After Darkness which was also partly set in coastal WA.  (See my review).  But the shortlisted book caught the eye of Allen & Unwin (who publish the winning novel […]


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