At a recent funeral for a friend’s father many of us were surprised – and surprisingly moved – when a uniformed soldier played The Last Post. It struck a sombre note during an otherwise laughter-filled celebration of a man who had been, in all ways, larger than life. It was just as moving watching Jack’s RSA drinking buddies, their suit-fronts stiff with medals, walking – or in some cases, shuffling – to the front to lay poppies in remembrance of their mate.
These elderly men had done more than just share countless beers with Jack. They’d shared an experience that most of us never even think about. When I first met Jack, almost 40 years ago, “the war” already felt like ancient history. As far as I was concerned, the photo of him as a handsome young man in a naval uniform which hung on the wall of my friend’s living room might as well have dated from the Boer War as WWII. Besides, even for those of us who were too young to take part in them, the anti-Vietnam War protests had served to make war, and all those who were involved in it, objects of contempt.
It was salutary, then, to be reminded just how important WWII was for a whole generation of New Zealand men. Many people are coming to the same realisation; after half a century of not talking about it, the war is finally starting to re-enter the public consciousness. Attitudes are now much more generous – just look at the growing popularity of Anzac Day ceremonies. So it’s timely that Peter Wells has chosen the war and its aftermath as the central theme of his new novel, Lucky Bastard. Timely and appropriate – as he points out in the foreword, his own father, Gordon, fought in WWII.
“Like many of his contemporaries, he never talked of the war,” he writes. “This novel is dedicated to him, and to the men who carried the burden of things done, things seen, and things left unsaid.”
The novel opens in Japan in the years immediately following the war. Eric Keeling, having spent time as a Japanese prisoner of war, is living in Tokyo where he is helping to investigate Japanese war crimes. But does his zeal for vengeance make him overstep the mark so that he successfully prosecutes a man for a crime he didn’t commit?
This is the mystery which lies at the heart of the novel, but Wells’s scope is much more ambitious than that. Lucky Bastard is also the story of the effect the war had on those who fought in it – and the effect it had on their children. And it is an exploration of family dynamics, in particular the difficult and complicated relationship between Eric’s children, Ross and Alison. Throw in the fact that one of them – Ross – is gay, and you’re dealing with a novel that is packed full of significant material. Sometimes it feels as if Wells can’t quite keep it all under control.
Annoyingly, he often labours points. In one especially powerful scene, for example, Alison remembers Eric hurling his sensitive little son over the side of a boat in an attempt to teach him how to swim. But Ross won’t let go of the boat, and in the end his father has to haul him back out of the water again. The way Alison remembers it, Ross ends up being the victor. “He would not give in,” she recalls. “His father could humiliate him as much as he wanted. But he would not give in. Things were different after that. They always are.” Yet, when Alison reminds Ross of this episode, he denies it happened that way. “No. No. I learnt to swim at the Teps,” he insists. “I caught the bus in from Westmere every Wednesday.”
His memories of his father are much worse: “He beat the shit out of me Alison, you know that.” It’s an unnecessary complication. The scene in the boat is such an authentic illustration of how war can damage a man, you have to wonder whether it was lifted straight from Wells’s own childhood. It doesn’t need to be used to ram home yet another point – that we all remember the past in different ways. Nor do we need Ross to spell out quite so explicitly the similarities between himself and his father. Both bear the scars of being “different” – Eric by what he has seen and experienced, Ross because he is gay. Both, surprise surprise, take to drink as a way of easing the pain. But Wells feels the need to take it even further. “I felt very old as I thought back to the child I had been, the resentful young man so intolerant of his father,” recalls Ross at one point. “How we had misunderstood each other, looked past each other and seen only demons whereas there might have been harmonious parallels.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Ross is a better-drawn character than Alison. Wells knows what it’s like to grow up gay in 1950s and 60s New Zealand. He doesn’t know much about what it’s like to be a woman who is also a hard-driven merchant banker in London. Wells also has some annoying stylistic habits. He’s overly fond of complicated adverbs and adjectives.
But despite some weaknesses, the story cracks along at a good pace. The first section of the book, when Eric is living in post-war Tokyo, is particularly engaging. Wells creates a real sense of time and place, and he captures his characters’ alcohol-fuelled desperation as they face an uncertain future. He’s good on place – his descriptions of modern Auckland later in the book really make the city come alive.
He does the smaller details well, too. The mystery of the missing tea chest which contains top-secret papers from the war is nicely handled. And the description of the television journalist who “unmasks” Eric is so horribly accurate that you’re prepared to forgive Wells his little joke in calling her current affairs programme 60 Seconds.
In the end, though, the book’s real strength comes from Wells’s recognition that “truth”, the whole idea of “what really happened”, are finely nuanced concepts. They can never be packaged neatly into a 60-second – or for that matter, a 60-minute – television format. It doesn’t matter what Eric really did, nor whose memories of childhood are more accurate. What matters is forgiveness and acceptance. Ultimately, Lucky Bastard works because Wells keeps us believing in the importance of coming to terms with the past in order to move into the future.
Ruth Nichol is a Wellington reviewer.