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In a half-cryptic, vaguely hysterical foreword here, veteran YA writer Southall accuses the Australian government of covering up its 1930s support of--and the true facts about--a religious cult called ""S.W.O.R.D.""; he refuses to reveal his sources; and he darkly confides that his home was broken into during the writing of this novel. (""Filing cabinets were disturbed."") But the story itself then comes as something of a disappointment--especially since Southall's self-conscious narration (interior monologues, flashbacks, artsy prose) offers fragmented, sardonic impresionism where clear illumination is badly needed. The alleged facts, as it turns out, are fairly simple. Led by a charismatic Brigadier, 100 Australians sailed to the deserted South Pacific island of Tangu Tangu in July 1941--to pray for peace, to await some divine manifestation, to act as God's ""Anglo-Saxon-Celtic"" agents against the forces of Hitlerite evil. On February 15, 1942, however, ""Operation Sword"" was decimated by the Japanese--who mistakenly believed it to be a military operation. And, in Southall's dramatization, this incident is viewed chiefly from the viewpoints of six participants. The Brigadier himself is seen back in the 1930s, when the cult simmered into being, as well as on 1942 Tangu Tangu, where his faith wavers. (""Have our prayers become the bleatings of sheep?"") Two boys, on the island with their families, are chosen by the Brigadier to stand watch on a clifftop 24 hours a day: cross-eyed 16-year-old Hogan Hancock takes the day shift; tall, thin, 17-year-old Jon Griffiths takes the night shift; both boys express some secret doubts about ""Operation Sword."" While twin 15-year-olds Jessie and Phoebe MacWhorter yearn after Jon, breaking curfew to come visit him during watch-hours, Kerry Shuffle (whom Jon adores) nurses her crush on the 50-year-old Brigadier. And then comes the Japanese bomb-attack--as Southall's narrative lurches into second-person archness and pseudo-poetics. (""You stumbled out into the night, terrified, because it was time to step over the line drawn across the end of the world. . . their ears split and their spirits reeled and their flesh shrank in horror from the tearing world."") Unfortunately, however, despite inventive and occasionally stylish splinters of psycho-drama here, the basic tale emerges only obliquely--with little credible insight into cultists' motivations. Moreover, Southall much too heavily shades the whole novel with irony and sarcasm about the ill-fated mission. In sum, then: overbearing, disjointed treatment of a potentially powerful true(?) story.

Pub Date: March 5th, 1984
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux