Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 5, 2015

The Return, by Silvia Kwon

The Return

It’s only a day or two since I was moaning about how I wanted to read stories of rural Australia that tackled the big issues of farm inheritance and the depopulation of the bush, and it turns out that I had one on my shelves anyway!

There is more to The Return, however, than those two issues.  It is a stylishly constructed novel which draws together themes of redemption and reconciliation.  Merna, married to Frank who is still nurturing post-Burma Railway feelings of hatred towards the Japanese, performs the role of woman-as-mediator when, in the 1960s, their only son brings his Japanese bride into their home.

The prologue, set on ‘the line’ in Burma in 1944 when Frank loses another mate to the brutality of the Japanese, sets the scene for the reader to understand his enduring hatred.  The writing suffers by comparison with Richard Flanagan’s powerful evocation of this same situation in his Booker-prize winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North (see my review and a Sensational Snippet) but I suspect that will be true for most writers who tackle the representation of that horror.  Flanagan, writing at the peak of his powers with his father’s experience on ‘the line’ to inspire him, has achieved a singular greatness in his novel, impossible to emulate.  Still, leaving aside the choice of second-person narration in The Return’s prologue which was IMO a mistake that risks banality, Kwon offers her own insight:

You catch the eye of a young Japanese soldier and the intensity of his gaze chills you in the fetid air.  The young man’s contempt is a silent weapon and you are unprepared for this otherness. You signed up to fight the enemy but spend all of the war observing him, getting to know the darkness of his soul.  What you see and learn – you realise – is no good to anyone. (p. xiv)

The man who comes back to Merna is a ruin.  Always reticent anyway, he retreats into impregnable silences and his wife learns to adjust to a dour and emotionally unavailable man.  Like others suffering post-traumatic stress, he has nightmares that frighten his wife, and he takes solace in alcohol and episodes of complete unavailability, in his case vanishing into the bush for two or three harrowing days.   This has its impact on Paul, the son born after Frank’s departure for war, and like many, he doesn’t want to return from the bright lights of the city after he finishes engineering at university.  His choice of employer, however, has major ramifications.  He tests Frank’s hatred for all things Japanese by working for Toyota.

Like many parents in rural Australia, Frank and Merna both hope for Paul’s return to take over the farm, but the pain of their son’s choice to follow a different path is exacerbated by Frank’s hatred for Japan.  And when Frank brings his Japanese bride home to meet his parents, the (fictional) small town of Metatung reacts with predictable racism.   Wisely, Kwon does not harp on this, choosing instead to write her narrative entirely from Merna’s perspective and leaving the empathetic reader to imagine the depths of Miko’s devastated response.

So, like Merna, the reader sees Paul’s consoling arm around his wife; we hear her quiet sobs through the bedroom door; we note the stilted dinner conversations where Frank ignores Miko; we observe her retreats to the vegetable garden to avoid him and we witness her brave attempts to assimilate by learning to bake scones and drink English tea.  But Merna is on her own journey too: she has spent almost twenty years in stoic resignation with no hope of recovering the Frank she used to love.  She does not share his hatred, but she respects his right to have it.  She knows by name the losses of people in town whose sons and husbands died in the Pacific War, and she does not sit in moral judgement on their reaction even though she knows that Miko was orphaned by the war.

Torn between Frank’s implacability and what she initially sees as Paul’s provocative lack of sensitivity, Merna has no alternative but to try to build bridges between them.  It takes her a long time to realise that the defiance with which she meets the racism of the town is what’s needed to break through Frank’s attitude as well.  Merna is a carefully-wrought, beautifully complex character representing the dilemmas of post-war life.

I look forward to this author’s further explorations of Australian life in her next novel.

Author: Silvia Kwon
Title: The Return
Publisher: Hachette, 2014
ISBN:
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh

Availability

Fishpond: The Return


Responses

  1. I feel bad for the characters and the situation they find themselves in just from reading the review–difficult for everyone…

    • Yes, it made me wonder how soldiers returning from Afghanistan or the Middle East feel when they are confronted by refugees from those theatres of war and the aspects of their culture that they bring with them.

  2. I’m interested in the writer’s background with a surname like that… ?

    • Hi Kim, she was born in Korea, but came to Australia when she was nine, and was brought up in WA. But now *smile* she lives and writes in Melbourne.

  3. There are very large pockets here of SE Asians. Some of them are relocated from Thailand Refugee camps to places such as the Dakotas where the climate must be a shock. Anyway–not sure how they’re supposed to melt into the culture.

    • Well, of course, we don’t expect them to ‘melt into the culture’ now, Australia embraced multiculturalism in the 1970s and even in the bush there is more cultural diversity than there was in the 1960s.
      But the point that Kwon makes in this novel is that there was more to the town’s reaction than racism towards The Other. Her characters were partly motivated by hostility to the Japanese because of their aggression in the Pacific War, and because of their brutality to POWs because they didn’t respect the Geneva Convention. It makes it a more complex issue to explore when characters have lost loved ones or have themselves suffered dreadfully at the hands of The Other.
      Her character Merne acknowledges that it’s still wrong to judge the individual by the actions of the group – but the novel shows that it’s not easy to do when you yourself have been a victim of other individuals in that group and that you have learned to cope with the post-traumatic stress by deflecting some of it into hatred.

  4. I’ve just finished reading this book & enjoyed your insights into it. I agree with you about the weaknesses (i’m surprised she isn’t a better writer, as she works in publishing) but emotionally, and as portrait of a specific era in Australian history, it rang so true for me.

    • *chuckle* I’ve read a couple of books written by people in publishing that I thought would never have been published at all if not for the connections of the author.
      But Kwon is not one of those: there’s a sophistication about the characterisation and theme that more than compensates for the first novel flaws IMO. I’m hoping she writes something else before long…

      • Yes, I guess it’s no guarantee of quality – what an irony. Perhaps editors are less likely to submit to editing themselves? Anyway, I agree with you that the good points definitely compensate for the weaknesses, and it’s a story that needs to be told (the response of the next generation,marrying the ‘enemy’) – I don’t know if it has been, in Aus lit? I haven’t read Flanagan, but my sense is that his book is more about the war experience?

        • Yes, but also adapting afterwards. There’s a sense of man never being the same ever again and how that impacts on relationships.

          • Sounds like I need to read it, although I’ve been reluctant because it sounds heavy going emotionally – thanks.

            • No doubt about that. But you know, there are men among us who lived through it and I think we owe it to them to have some inkling of what they experienced.

              • Yes, my dad was on kokoda trail so i do have an inkling, which is why it’s hard to read. Although fortunately his active service was short so he was less scarred than many others.

                • Poor man. I only know one PoW veteran myself, but I have read about how they were treated when they got back here to Australia by people who thought they’d had an ‘easy’ war, and it is heart-breaking…

                • Sad – it’s good there’s more understanding now of PTSD.


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