Reviewed by SUSAN JACOBS
As the old soldiers who fought in the World War II age and die we, the cosseted generations that followed, find ourselves hungry for their stories.
Perhaps that is because so many never spoke much about it except for the odd cheery anecdote, a word or two of Greek or some lines from an Italian folk song. And perhaps it is because today's relentless focus on individual fulfilment leave us fascinated by the razor-edge OE of the young soldier who was sent to live or die for a common cause.
Award-winning New Zealand writer Patricia Grace was 7 when her father joined the 28th Maori Battalion reinforcements in Italy in 1944. For a brief time he kept a notebook that, like most war diaries, is notable more for what it doesn't say than for what it does. The why and the how, the what for and what it was like that readers crave can be retrieved only in hindsight through careful research and imaginative reconstruction.
Pondering what drove so many young Maori men to join up in a society where they had yet to be considered the equals of Pakeha, Grace has created a novel that explores some of these questions. Never strident or obvious, they are threaded subtly and effortlessly into the fabric of story.
When a niece and nephew, Rimini and Benedict, wish to know more of their family past from their embittered, reclusive uncle, Tu, he decides to let them read his war diary, despite the fact it will reveal personal secrets. The novel then traces the experiences of Tu, the youngest of three brothers and two sisters who grew up in the country before moving to Wellington after the death of their father, who had never recovered from injuries received in World War I.
Set in the mud-caked rubble of Cassino, Italy, and the bustle of early 1940s New Zealand, the narrative weaves between Tu's account from the battlefield, where he is stationed with his older brothers Pita and Rangi, and the family's life as part of the Wellington's Maori community.
The moody Pita, who has been most affected by their traumatised father, plans his family's future. Enter the enigmatic Jess, a woman who will have a profound effect on all three brothers. When Tu returns home he shuns family contact.
There are plenty of surprises in this straightforwardly told, though structurally complex narrative, but some lack the dramatic momentum to move us. This is because going back and forth in time can be awkward and flat, with some elements emphasised at the expense of other equally important ones, which remain sketchy. , Jess is a disappointingly shadowy figure whose effect on the brothers is hard to understand. She is seen only through them and is never presented as a voice in her own right.
Grace's description of battles at Casino lost before they began is superb and sobering. Through Tu's distinctive voice she captures the carnage of warfare, its noise and stench, the feel of boots sinking into soft surfaces that turn out to be lumps of rotting flesh.
Her unerring ear for dialogue conveys the grim yet endearing humour that sustained them. Bootleg gets both feet blown off. "'How about the middle leg?' Bootleg asked us. 'He still got his foot on?' 'Right as rain,' we all assured him. 'Ah champion,' Bootleg said. 'All ready for action by the time I get home."'
How the experience of war can be both the best of times and the worst of times, scarring the normality of "real life" so that nothing is ever the same again, is an enduring motif, told with heart and humanity. From Patricia Grace we expect nothing less.
* Penguin, $35
* Susan Jacobs is the author of Fighting With the Enemy: New Zealand POWs and the Italian Resistance