500 Words From...is a series of guest posts from authors, in which they talk about their newly-published books. Here Ann Bennett explains the background behind Bamboo Heart, published in paperback today by Monsoon Books.
Ann Bennett is a UK-based novelist and lawyer.
Set in South East Asia both in the present and before and during the Second World War, Bamboo Heart captures the suffering and courage of prisoners of war of the Japanese. It tells the story of Tom Ellis, a prisoner enslaved on the infamous Death Railway in Thailand, and charts the journey of his daughter, Laura, who turns her back on her comfortable lifestyle in eighties London to investigate her father's wartime experience.
So: 500 Words From Ann Bennett
At the end of the Second World War allied intelligence services surveyed newly-released prisoners of war with so-called liberation questionnaires. My novel, Bamboo Heart, started life when I discovered my father’s liberation questionnaire in Britain's National Archives. It was an amazing moment when I first saw it; written in his perfect copper-plate hand, it answered so many questions I would like to have asked. From that moment I knew I had to write about his experiences as a prisoner-of-war on the Death Railway in Thailand.
This discovery was the culmination of a lifetime’s quest to find out what had happened to my father during the war. He died when I was only seven, and growing up I became increasingly interested in his past. He hardly spoke about the war, having started a new life with my mother on his return to England in 1945. I was interested enough to travel to Kanchanaburi to see the railway in 1988. On that trip I fell in love with South East Asia, but found out very little about what had happened to my father there.
I took the tragic events Dad described in his questionnaire as the basis of Tom’s story in Bamboo Heart. I wanted to write about those events from the perspective of one man, within the framework of a fast-moving narrative. My aim was to bring those events alive without it feeling like a history lesson.
The events I was describing were harrowing. So to lighten the mood, I broke it up with flashbacks to Tom’s pre-war life in colonial Penang, where he fell in love. I also introduced a parallel modern plot, the story of Tom’s own daughter’s search for the truth about the war. For Laura’s story I drew upon my own life as a disaffected young lawyer in the eighties, and upon my memories of those times. The novel touches on the Wapping Riots, famous in the UK, which I remember well. Co-incidentally the first day of serious rioting was 15th February 1986, the anniversary of the Fall of Singapore.
I tried to tell a story of hope and survival, to examine the reasons why some survived the worst of ordeals and others sadly did not. I also wanted to show what an important role history plays in all our lives; how powerfully our family’s past affects our own choices and values.
My research for Bamboo Heart taught me so much more about the war in the Far East than I had expected. I had not previously known how civilians suffered; about starvation and massacres, about bravery and sacrifice. It inspired me to explore those events from other angles and through other peoples’ stories.
Bamboo Heart is the first novel in a planned trilogy. I have just finished writing Bamboo Island, about Juliet, a plantation owner’s wife, who has lived a reclusive life since the war robbed her of everyone she loved. The sudden appearance of a stranger disrupts her lonely existence and stirs up unsettling memories.
I’m also working on a third novel: Bamboo Road, about of the daughter of a member of the Thai resistance which tells how the influx of prisoners-of-war into that remote jungle region affects her life.
Click here for Ann’s website.