Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 4, 2021

Death of a Coast Watcher, by Anthony English

One of the pleasures of a blog like mine is that sometimes there is an opportunity to introduce a really fine work of fiction to readers who might otherwise never get to hear about it.  The debut novel Death of a Coast Watcher by Australian author Anthony English has been positively reviewed by The Asian Review of Books but it’s published by a small indie publisher in the UK which doesn’t have much exposure here in Australia.

This is the blurb:

In 1943 on Bougainville Island, New Guinea, a Japanese officer beheads Hugh Rand, an Australian spy — a coast watcher. The spectators include villagers he terrorised as his mind frayed under the stress of pursuit by soldiers and their hounds. Rand’s influence transcends his death. For decades he plagues characters who strive to cope with him and one another in New Guinea, the Gilbert Islands, Australia and Japan. Who misperceives? Lies? Self-destructs? Suffers? Loves? The layers unfold as the author entices us through cultural, historical and intellectual curtains, deep into minds and relationships disturbed by the Pacific war and Rand’s legacy.

And this is the video (which I like because of the music):

What kind of man is willing to be despatched from Australia onto an island occupied by the Japanese in WW2, where the local people are possibly more loyal to the Japanese than to Australia? Australia had held the mandate for the Territory of New Guinea since the defeat of Germany in WW1 but there was no certainty that the locals were willing to risk their lives to enable an Australian coast-watcher to send radio reports about Japanese troop movements.

Such a man must surely be brave, and so he is in the shocking first chapter of Death of a Coast Watcher.  Hugh Rand, formerly a colonial administrator on New Ireland but now landed covertly on Bougainville to monitor Japanese activity, initially arouses the reader’s admiration for his courage under Japanese torture and for the manner of his beheading. Very soon, however,  the reader is trapped into confronting a back story that shows him to be cruel, violent, racist and misogynistic.  Charlotte Millar, whose husband in the 1970s is obsessed with Rand’s story, reads a witness account and comes to this conclusion:

From Bos’s encounters with him and her description of the execution, including the dynamics of the severed head, Charlotte now discerned a shortish, awkward man with sandy hair; his distinctive clothing tattered and stained; awful injuries and much blood.  No voice or face but aspects of his individuality rammed into her brain, where he registered pride, intelligence, fortitude, fearlessness; and the personality of a psychopath to rival the Japanese officer and his dogs. (p.183)

The power of this novel arises from the way narrators undermine the testimony that has gone before, in order to establish that, sometimes, it’s just not possible to find out what happened.  Rand’s story, narrated from a 3rd person limited point-of-view, tells us not only what he did, but also about his bizarre motivations and about his obsessive preoccupation with being in control.  An alternative story comes in 1971, from the narrative of a young Indigenous woman called Bos Simeon.  She is pressured incessantly to retrieve memories she would rather forget, and she tells a different story about Rand’s presence on Bougainville.  Peter Millar, reading Charlotte’s translation of Bos’s Pidgin English, says it could be a fabrication, and that they should read it as one of several possible stories.  What Peter doesn’t know is that Charlotte, for her own neurotic reasons, has embellished the text, and made excisions too.

On a break back in Australia Peter visits Brooksbank, Rand’s Commanding Officer, now a very old man.  He undercuts the narrative again, hinting that there’s more to the story but he won’t ever tell.  Charlotte, ever the cynic, thinks that he’s glorifying the banal with mystery.

Charlotte is a difficult character: hypercritical, jealous, demanding, racist, and unafraid to be completely obnoxious.  Ayanokoji—who she meets by chance in Japan in 1982 when she debunks from a conference because it’s tedious—wonders how her two husbands have coped with her negativity and her compulsion to say what she thought.  She is strong on logic, but her argument often cynical, with a sting in the tail.  How did they put up with her anxiety, impetuousness, and her over-analysis of others but not of herself?

But why should we trust his opinion?  He is a man who has successfully hidden shameful truths about himself from his colleagues and his wife for decades.

Death of a Coast Watcher is an artful novel that asks very difficult questions: about evil acts done by all sides in war; about mythologising false heroism; about whether atrocities should be memorialised because that might only foster ongoing hatred, and about how governments so readily abandon moral principles for strategic, economic and diplomatic reasons.   In 1971 Peter is annoyed that he has to pander to a Japanese delegation come to reclaim body parts and relics of dead combatants: he wants to tell them uncomfortable truths that are never alluded to in the Japanese curriculum, and he gets some advice from a colleague that I find intriguing, and not just in the context of this dialogue:

“Wear the gag.  Then write and publish what you want when your contract’s over.” (p.257)

It’s really hard to do justice in a review to a thought-provoking book like this one.  Highly recommended.

About the author (from the Monsoon website):

Australian author Anthony English was formerly a university lecturer in international management and prior to that a civil servant and development project manager, working in Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and New Zealand. Previous publications include journalism and academic articles, and his non-fiction book Tug of War: The Tension Concept and the Art of International Negotiation (2010) analyses international negotiation in hostage release, diplomacy, trade and business. Death of a Coast Watcher is his first long work of fiction

Image credit: map of Bougainville, where-is-bougainville.jpg (1500×1070) (freeworldmaps.net)

Author: Anthony English
Title: Death of a Coast Watcher
Publisher: Monsoon Books, UK, 2021, first published 2020
ISBN: 9781912049707, pbk., 464 pages
Review copy courtesy of Monsoon Books, via the author

Available from Monsoon Books (£8.99, free postage in the UK), from Fishpond in Australia and New Zealand Death of a Coast Watcher $15.97 AUD.  It’s available for your Kindle as well.


Responses

  1. This sounds good.

    Like

    • It’s going to be one of my Top Books for the year…

      Like

      • That’s a big call in April!

        Like

        • I know. And I don’t say it lightly. I like books that widen my knowledge of our region and its history, and I like books that expand my way of looking at the world. This book does both and it kept me wholly absorbed for the entire time I was reading it.

          Like

  2. I have read a bit of the history of the coast watchers. A very compelling review Lisa, I need to read this

    Like

  3. Sounds fascinating, Lisa – thanks for the heads up!

    Like

    • I’m not going to be saying this to everybody because it takes a certain kind of reader to appreciate the genius of this book, but I think you would definitely appreciate the way it messes with your mind. I read the first chapter, then was about half way through the second, and had to go back and re-read, and then it dawned on me what this clever author was up to.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. On my list!

    Like

    • If your library hasn’t got it, ask them to buy it for you:)
      We do not, after all, know anything near enough about the Pacific War in our part of the world.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I just filled in a purchase request, Lisa. I’m sure they’ll buy it if they can :-)

        Like


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Categories

%d bloggers like this: