Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 7, 2022

Only Birds Above (2022), by Portland Jones

Only Birds Above is the second novel from WA author Portland Jones who describes herself on her website as a writer who trains horses or a horse trainer who writes.  Like her first novel, Only Birds Above is about war and its inescapable aftermath, but whereas Seeing the Elephant explored the ramifications of the Vietnam War (see my review), Only Birds Above follows the effects of both World Wars on one family.

The novel begins on 15th August 1945, in Millendon, WA, when neighbour Mrs Prichard bursts in to pass on the news that the war is over.  These days Millendon is a suburb of Perth, but in 1945 it was a country town, small enough for Ruth, after Pearl Harbour, to be asked about her brother Tom in Sumatra whenever she went to the general store or the post office.  After the fall of Singapore and the Dutch East Indies, they stopped asking.

Even when it seemed to her that every week the name of a boy she’d known at school would appear in the lists of those lost, there seemed to be a special kind of pity left for her family. She could almost hear them as she passed: First the mother and now the son, it’s no wonder the father’s like he is. (p.6)

Arthur is ‘like he is’ because he’s a veteran of the Great War.  He was with the 10th Light Horse, an infantry regiment which rode horses into battle. He was a blacksmith, enlisted to look after the thousands of horses shipped over to the Middle East where they were trained to tolerate battle conditions and the hostile desert environment.  Arthur survives, but he comes home as a man damaged not only by the slaughter but by his ambivalent feelings about the courage of the Australian troops who also engaged in shameful behaviour.  An introspective man who knows the value of scarce water supplies, he is troubled by the way the troops help themselves to the locals’ water wells; he is uneasy about looting, including the theft of an ancient Roman mosaic; and although he doesn’t participate in the Surafend Massacre it haunts him ever thereafter.  He is also haunted by the horses, loyal, faithful and brave companions through thick and thin, that were not repatriated to Australia afterwards. (It is widely believed that they were all shot, but that, according to this article at the State Library of Queensland, is a myth. What is beyond dispute is that only one was ever returned to Australia.)

Bitter and haunted by these memories, Arthur can’t restore his relationship with his wife Helen.  His daughter Ruth, born while he was on active service, ends up caring for Tom, the boy born into this dysfunctional family after Arthur’s return.  It’s a sad household, one surrounded by other families in the district where damaged men struggle on, side by side with families in mourning for the loss of their men. They are poor and shabby, and Arthur — taciturn and moody and bereft of hope — is not much of a farmer.

And as we all know, within a generation, there was the Depression, and then another world war.  Tom takes up work in Sumatra before there is any apprehension of a Pacific war, and when the calamity strikes, he is taken as a POW and put to work as slave labour by the Japanese on the Pekanbaru Death Railway. Not as well known as the Burma-Thailand Death Railway the Pekanbaru Death Railway was equally devastating in its effects on starving men who fell prey to illness, extreme cruelty and a shocking mortality rate.

As Jones foreshadowed in Meet an Aussie Author back in 2017, this novel is very loosely based on her great-grandfather’s time as a POW in Indonesia.  However, as you might guess from the cover design, the narrative focusses more on Arthur’s back story in WW1 than it does on Tom in WW2, but the narrative tension derives from the reader wanting to learn the younger man’s fate.  The novel ends on 30th August 1945, but you will have to read it yourself to find out if he survives.

You can read an interview with the author at Amanda Curtin’s website.

Author: Portland Jones
Title: Only Birds Above
Cover design by Nada Backovic
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781760990268, pbk., 220 pages
Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press.



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