So I suppose most people might think this is the China Mieville debut novel, but in actuality, it’s James Clavell’s debut novel. It’s about a Japanese prisoner of war camp on Singapore in the closing year of the war. Some 10,000 English, Australian, and American servicemen are imprisoned in the camp with Japanese overcommanders and prison guards chosen by the units themselves. It’s kind of like an unfunny mix of Hogan’s Heroes, Catch-22, and The Great Escape. That’s not to say that it’s not good, because for the most part it is, with some issues.
When I say it’s not funny, it’s not. It’s the most depressing war or prisoner book you could ever come across, but it’s not a funny book at all. In general, the book is about the friendship between a downed British pilot and an American corporal. Because of the accident of speaking some of the local languages, the pilot, Marlowe, the stand-in for Clavell himself, becomes friends with the “King” the local black marketeer for the camp. This friendship is generally at odds with the camp guards and the honest nature of the pilot.
The book is weird, if I am being honest. For one, there is an epic tone to a lot of what happens with a too small cast of characters and plot and length. Also, there are weird digressions that provide background and thematic material, but don’t really completely add to the overall package. The two parts that make this rough in general is the generally clunky dialog, which hopefully is a product of its debut nature, and it’s really uncomfortable depiction of homosexuality and maybe? transsexuality. Both of these detract from the experience and hopefully are products of the time. I would otherwise want to read his much longer novels.
Tales of the South Pacific – 3/5 Stars
This goes along with the previous novel as a reminder that we did in fact fight a whole war in the Pacific that we don’t talk about that much. This is a strange novel though. It’s not exactly a novel really, it’s a collection of short stories that intermingle to become a “novel”. It’s got a few running threads — a narrator of about 1/4 of the book who takes you along the more Naval paths to guide you through the various battles, events, thought-processes, and other stories on the more official end.
There’s the other stories too….love stories between the sailors and the native girls, the love between the servicemen and the girls back home. There’s the stories related to the SeaBees, who are pretty awesome…fighting construction workers who built the islands and then also had to pick up and fight when needed.
It’s not a boring book and it’s not one that lacks interest at all. But it’s a curated and not quite big enough book. In this way, it’s a lot like King Rat, in that it wants to be epic, but doesn’t do epic at all.
Instead it’s oddly intimate. One thing that makes it a little tough of a sell is that it’s too late 1940s and it’s too tied to the close experiences of being in the zeitgeist of the war. So there’s no longview at all. It’s not not interesting, but it’s limited in that respect. It’s an artifact more than a novel in that way.