500 words from...is a series of guest posts from authors writing about Asia, and published by Asia-based, or Asia-focussed, publishing houses, in which they talk about their latest books. Here Ann Bennett writes about Bamboo Island, the second book in her World War II South East Asian trilogy. Last year, in the Year of the Horse, the first book, Bamboo Heart, won the inaugural Asian Books Blog Book of the Lunar New Year. The trilogy is published by Monsoon, a company specialising in books that open windows onto South East Asian history.
So: over to Ann…
Bamboo Island is the story of a British ex-pat, Juliet Crosby, a rubber planter’s wife. It opens in 1962. Juliet has been living a reclusive life on her plantation since the Second World War robbed her of everyone she loved. The sudden appearance of a young woman from Indonesia disrupts her lonely existence and stirs up unsettling memories. Together they embark on a journey to Singapore and to Bamboo Island, in Indonesia, to uncover secrets buried for more than twenty years.
The idea for the trilogy came from researching my father’s wartime experiences. He fought in the Malaya campaign and was taken prisoner at the Fall of Singapore. He worked on the Thai-Burma railway and survived the sinking of a hell-ship off the Philippines. In the course of my research, I read a great deal about the Malaya Campaign and the Fall of Singapore. I was struck by how the lives of everyone in the region were affected by the war and the Japanese occupation. I read horrific stories of massacres, of starvation, of unbelievable cruelty, but also amazing tales of sacrifice, hope and survival.
After I’d written Bamboo Heart, the story of a prisoner on the Death Railway, I wanted to go back to that time and place to write about the effect of the war and occupation from a different perspective. I chose to write from the viewpoint of an ordinary woman who had made a life in Malaya, but whose life was transformed by the war.
I wanted to show how the war engulfed the region, how it destroyed families and lives. It was important for my central character, Juliet, to be involved in her own personal struggle before the invasion changed everything. Juliet travels from London to Penang with her sister Rose, initially for a visit, but both soon decide to settle in Malaya. Juliet marries a rubber planter and travels with him to his estate, but she quickly discovers that all is not quite as might first have appeared. Her life is already in turmoil when war breaks out.
Through Juliet’s eyes the reader witnesses the horrors of the Japanese occupation of Singapore: an infamous massacre at a local hospital, the Alexandra Hospital; the horrific Sook Ching (elimination by purification) which saw the murder of many Chinese men; the brutal treatment of internees in the notorious prison camp, Changi.
The sinking of the civilian transport ship, the Vyner Brooke, and the massacre of survivors on a beach on Bangka Island, off Sumatra, were the inspiration for the sinking of a fictitious ship, the Rajah of Sarawak, which is central to the plot of Bamboo Island.
My aim, in Bamboo Island, as in Bamboo Heart, was to bring the dreadful events of the Second World War to life through the story of one character.
I’ve travelled a fair amount in far flung outposts of the former British Empire since my very first trip from Bangkok to Bali in 1985. I then stayed in crumbling guesthouses in India, Burma, Sri Lanka and Malaysia which would once have been the sumptuous homes of British expats. This kindled my interest in the people who, in the days of Empire, travelled half way across the world to make a new life in the East. That’s how Juliet first came into my mind - sitting on the veranda of her decaying house, looking back over the years, thinking about the people she loved and lost, and how the war and the Japanese occupation transformed her life.