Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 23, 2022

One Bright Morning, by Wendy Scarfe

Just scraping into the last day of Bill’s week focussing on Australian Women Writers Gen4 at The Australian Legend, One Bright Morning is the latest novel from one of my favourite authors, Wendy Scarfe. (Bill’s criteria for inclusion in Gen 4 is simple: women who began writing in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  Wendy’s first novel was The Lotus Throne (Spectrum Pubs., Melbourne, 1976).

One Bright Morning is a story set around a pivotal moment in Australia’s history.  This is the blurb:

Fleeing Kuala Lumpur after the Japanese capture of Penang, young Zeny Havilland arrives in Darwin shortly before Christmas 1941.

Uprooted and knowing no one, she finds work as a reporter on the Northern Standard and a home with a gentle Quaker who takes in waifs and strays. Robert, a troubled young man damaged by war, lives in a shed in the garden.

The Japanese army’s advance into the Pacific seems unstoppable and Australia a probable target. Amid the growing tensions in a frontier town unprepared for Japanese attack, Zeny and Robert fall in love and face with courage not only the threat of invasion but their fear that Robert’s personal demons will destroy their future together.

The chilling prologue is dated 19 February 1942 in Darwin:

It was a bright morning, the azure sky untroubled by the usual rolls of purple cloud threatening rain.  Sitting with Robert on a wooden bench on the Esplanade, overlooking the Timor Sea, I watched a kingfisher in a flash of cerulean dart from an old tree to the bank of mangroves below.  A flock of birds in arrow formation from the south caught my attention.  Leaning against Robert, I wondered idly what islands they had come from.  Birds migrating were not new to Darwin.  I studied them, the sun glinting on their silver wings.  This was unusual, surely some trick of the morning light. (p.1)

The back story then emerges.  Zeny, in her early twenties, is living and working independently in Kuala Lumpur as the Japanese advance through Southeast Asia.  She hesitates to evacuate for misguided reasons, and ends up being rescued by a couple of coast watchers.

(This put me in mind of Anthony English’s Death of a Coast Watcher which vividly depicts the complexities, dangers and ethical issues confronting Australian spies operating in Japanese-occupied territory.  See my review here).

Zeny’s voyage in a camouflaged fishing vessel with Bill and Joe is not without danger, but it sidesteps the disastrous Fall of Singapore which had been Zeny’s original destination. She arrives in Darwin not only unable to explain the covert circumstances of her arrival, but also to the realisation that Darwin is no safe haven anyway. It’s geographically and militarily vulnerable, and thanks to years of government neglect and poor administration, it’s isolated by inadequate communications and transport connections to the rest of the country.  There is widespread fear of a Japanese invasion.

While Churchill refuses to return our troops for the defence of Australia, the federal government in Canberra struggles to face up to the threat after the loss of the 8th division (15,000 men) in Singapore.  As it tries to force the evacuation of women and children who don’t want to leave, Zeny settles into a very unsettled life.  Quixotically, despite the oppressive weather and the impending peril, she wants to make her home in Darwin because she’s never had a proper home. Her mother died when she was young, and she went to boarding school while her father did humanitarian work.  Her last communication with him was from Burma, advising her to get out of KL; and having heard reports about Japanese atrocities in Penang, she fears for his safety but her daily trips to the Post Office bring no news.

However, apart from the gentle kindness of her Quaker landlady Olive, there’s also the enigmatic presence of Robert, suffering from what we would now call PTSD as a consequence of his experiences as an ambulance driver in the Spanish Civil War.  One Bright Morning is partly a love story, one that shows how people with a mental illness sometimes avoid relationships because they fear being a burden. But it also shows the joy of discovering someone who shares a love of books.  This couple is navigating contentment rather than a grand passion.

(It’s also a nice touch when Robert helps Big Dan to improve his reading skills to assuage his loneliness.  He marvels at War and Peace, wondering if Hitler had ever read it, because if he had, he might have had second thoughts about invading Russia.  Indeed.)

Like most (but not all) of the strong female characters in the novel, Zeny is self-supporting and independent, and she quickly gets herself a job reporting on ‘Women’s Issues’ at the local newspaper.  (Remember the ‘women’s pages’ in the press? Too many terrific women journalists were marooned there, few of them able to achieve even a byline, though the late Pamela Bone at The Age broke the mould.)  Notwithstanding, Zeny earns the grudging admiration of her editor, even when she writes articles that get censored by government.  Her role as a journalist in the novel allows her access to places and events not available to most other women so the issues raised by the pre-bombing inertia and the chaos in the aftermath are shown from a woman’s point-of-view.

The characterisation of the Quaker landlady and Robert as a non-combatant victim of war brings into focus the question of pacifism during a time of war.  The barbarism of their enemy is shown by the bombing of the clearly marked civilian hospital and the hospital ship and Zeny is surprised to feel the depths of her hatred for people who would commit such atrocities.  At the same time, the multiculturalism of Darwin challenges easy judgements: there is swift intervention when the visiting US military tries to discriminate against Darwinians of Japanese origin.  Without being heavy-handed about it, this is a novel which interrogates a number of complex philosophical issues.

Exactly the kind of novel that I like.

In the Acknowledgements, Wendy credits her sources, which include Peter Grose’s An Awkward Truth: The Bombing of Darwin which I reviewed back in 2009.

Author: Wendy Scarfe
Title: One Bright Morning
Cover design: Stacey Zass
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781743058947, pbk., 216 pages
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press


Responses

  1. […] Lisa Hill/ANZLitLoversThe Visit, Amy Witting (here)Orpheus Lost, Janet Turner Hospital (here)Blood in the Rain, Margaret Barbalet (here) plus quite a bit of background on BarbaletThe Penguin Best Australian Short Stories, Mary Lord ed. (here)One Bright Morning, Wendy Scarfe (here) […]

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  2. Wendy Scarfe is the same age as my mother. I don’t know what Scarfe’s experience of WWII was but my mother’s recollections – and she was on a remote farm in Victoria – are few and mostly to do with shortages.

    I think of Catch 22, a WWII book which was read mostly for its anti-war thesis in the context of the Vietnam War, and I wonder if Scarfe is using the bombing of Darwin to interrogate issues which have arisen since.

    Liked by 1 person

    • From what I’ve read of her novels (Hunger Town, The Day They Shot Edward) I would say that Scarfe interrogates a wide range of issues from a progressive PoV. The Day They Shot Edward, first published in 1991, is set amid the 1916 Conscription Referendum of WW1, so she has been interested in issues of pacifism for a while.)
      The Vietnam War, like WW1, is an obvious example of a stupid and unnecessary war which caused devastating casualties and destruction, and was waged for unethical geopolitical reasons which ceased to be relevant anyway. Those wars fail the Principles of a Just War altogether, just as other wars have since. But WW2 is a more difficult war to interrogate, and Scarfe’s characters have that ethical dilemma too. Fascism, genocide and barbarity had to be stopped, and even now it seems clear that there was no other way to stop it than war.

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      • I like your answer and I’ve acknowledged a few times that I would have agreed to being conscripted once the Japanese started heading towards Australia (in WWII). I can see also that the war against Facism was ‘just’ but I think also that Germany and Japan were deliberately provoked into war by western policies in the 1920s. You see the same thing today with Iran for example, but also with the provocative containment of Russia.

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        • Yeah, there’s a lot of war talk around Russia at the moment.
          The only good thing we can say about nuclear weapons is that they’ve deterred a lot of wars…

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  3. I’ve got this one in the TBR because it was a surprise delivery from the publisher. It only arrived on Friday. I will look forward to reading it now that I have seen your review. I have often wondered why there aren’t more novels about the bombing of Darwin… it’s one of those events that seems to have been lost in history…I’m pretty sure most Australians would not even know it happened.

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    • I know of one other, but set in Broome not Darwin, and I see that you have reviewed it: The Divine Wind by Gary Disher.

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      • Yes, and it’s a young adult novel. There are fleeting references to the bombings in Randolph Stow’s The Merry-go-round in the Sea and even in Peter Goldsworthy’s Maestro, but when I went to Darwin in March 2020 (just a week before we all went into that first lockdown) there were references to the war everywhere. I obviously knew about it (in the vaguest of terms) but it was all new to Tim…

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        • It would be new to him. If you look at the WP entry for the Fall of Singapore which was devastating for Australia, it’s mainly about the British. It’s like when you go to Greenwich and see the statue of Captain Cook and his landing in Australia gets just a half-hearted mention compared to his Imperial significance.

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  4. I’d love to read this but having trouble finding it available as I live in Calgary, AB, Canada. Any suggestions?

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    • Hello Deirdre, it’s Sunday here so I can’t contact the publisher today, but this is the link to their website, where you will see that they have published digital editions of her books before this, so it may just be a matter of waiting a little while.

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  5. Slightly off-topic, but the cover art of Death Of a Coast Watcher I am really attracted to. I tend to like the abstract. I have added One Bright Morning to my ever-growing wish list.

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    • Uh… not giving away any spoilers but that cover is soooo relevant to Death of a Coast Watcher, in more than one sense!

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  6. What a beautiful cover! And I like the way you’ve described this; I’m sure I would enjoy it too.

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    • We have some exquisite birds here in Australia. I’m not a bird watcher but I do get a thrill out of the more colourful ones to visit our suburbs, and there are plenty because we have so many parks and wetlands in and adjacent to our area, and the bay too. Considering I chose the suburb I live in purely by accident because I was just exhausted by house-hunting, I am incredibly lucky to be here.

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      • We’ve been very lucky in finding additional layers of enjoyment after moving to particular locations: we’re in midtown but unbeknownst to us moved within walking distance of a ravine system, with a marshy area too, that we enjoy daily. It’s a wonder. Do you know the boardgame Wingspan? We recently bought the Oceania birds add-on for it. *rubs palms*

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        • LOL the only board games I know are Chess, Monopoly and Ludo, and I haven’t played them since The Offspring was a kid. (I am totally *over* this whole thing about Wordle ATM…)

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  7. Will come back and read this later, when I’ve read my copy!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sure you’ll enjoy it:)

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  8. […] For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers. […]

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