[Rachel is thinking about her dead husband’s war experiences, when he was in a Japanese POW camp]
At Cambi Road reunions veteran after veteran, some of them still half-broken men, had taken her aside to tell that they wouldn’t have made it through, but for the Colonel….
The men at the reunions seemed not to envy Jocelyn his return to fitness. One of them, still in his wheelchair, said as much to Rachel once.
“Good to see the Colonel looking so grand. I’d hate to see him stuck in one of these things.”
For his part Jocelyn would have preferred to miss out on these meetings,. The war was over, and he was in any case almost wholly uninterested in the past. He went, really, because the men wanted him there, but that was something he would have refused to acknowledge. He did it, he said, because he needed to talk to the men and check whether there was any way in which he could help them.
observations: At the beginning of Jo Walton’s Farthing – a book I read and blogged on recently, and loved – she mentions Some Deaths Before Dying in her acknowledgements, though in terms of someone else’s academic comments on it. Coincidentally, I came across a splendid quote from Peter Dickinson in some other reading - apparently, in a piece called ‘In Defence of Rubbish’, he wrote:
Nobody who has not spent a whole sunny afternoon under his bed rereading a pile of comics left over from the previous holidays has any real idea of the meaning of intellectual freedom.You have to like him for saying that – the signs were good for me to re-read this.
In terms of the puzzle and detection, this is a great book, with a terrific opening concept: A valuable gun appears on a British TV show called The Antiques Roadshow, and some people who see it know that this gun is not where it should be. And they want to know what happened.
There is then a long painstaking process of following this up, tracking down people, contacting them and asking them questions. (I didn’t find this dull, though sometimes the level of ‘well I’ll have to check with him and then get back to you’ seemed pointless, and could have been omitted.) There is an important backstory dealing with the incidents mentioned above, a group of men in a Japanese POW camp during the Second World War.
We get the story via three different people, but the most compelling narrative is that of Rachel: elderly, dying of motor neurone disease, and entirely reliant on other people, but very anxious to investigate what has happened. Her story, and her perceptions on age and disability, were absolutely riveting. (Dickinson himself was in his 70s when he wrote the book.) There were some unexpected turns in the story, and I was impressed with the plot twists. And he has some lovely turns of phrase – I liked this, where a character is getting the full force of a conversation with an old soldier: ‘she could see how this look might once have awed paraded regiments, but it had no effect on her. It lacked the password to her controls.’
I am a long-time fan of Dickinson, and admire very much his novelistic achievements (his book Death of a Unicorn is on the blog here), and about 90% of this book was highly enjoyable in terms of following the story and very much wanting to know the explanation. The very final pages were somewhat dislikeable, and contained a copout. It didn’t quite make sense to me, and too much was left unresolved. So I can’t say it’s a five-star must-read – but it is an extremely good book.
This is a picture of some prisoners in a similar situation after they had been freed at the end of the war (although they are RAF), and is from the Imperial War Museum.
Another Japanese POW camp featured in the book The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, here on the blog.