HIROSHIMA JOE by Martin Booth


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Published in England to a certain fanfare, this latter-day novel of WW II tries for a moral intensity that is marred by a number of worn, and sometimes seemingly gratuitous, conventions. Joseph Sandingham is a young British officer who survives the bloody conquest of Hong Kong by the Japanese on Christmas of 1941, although his fellow officer and homosexual lover, Bob, is killed. Secretly carrying a treasured photograph of Bob with him, Sandingham spends the rest of the war as a POW in forced-labor camps, first in Hong Kong, then near Hiroshima, where he witnesses the atomic bombing--and in fact, in the immediate aftermath of the blast, enters the city in search of a Japanese friend who had showed kindness to him in the camp. These wartime events are told in chapters that alternate with others chronicling Sandingham's later life, in 1952, again in Hong Kong. Unemployed, dying slowly of as-yet undiagnosed radiation sickness, addicted to opium, and forced to survive by thievery (he is at the mercy of unscrupulously cruel opium dealer, fence, and crime-king Francis Leung, whom Sandingham first met in the POW camps), Sandingham finally hangs himself from his hotel window, but not before giving, for Christmas, the much-wrinkled photograph of the dead Bob to a little boy who lives in the hotel (""try to remember me and keep my friend Bob safe and sound""), and telling the boy that ""More than anything else, war is the worst thing people do."" A vivid and often terror-filled authenticity--in battle, aboard prisonship to Japan, in the horrors of bombed Hiroshima, now and then in the streets of modern Hong Kong--resides here alongside the decidedly more standard and banal (the Hollywood movie portrayals of the hyper-villainous Leung; the tough, Bogart-and-bouncer scenes in Hong Kong taverns), and alongside the speciously sentimental (""He still loved Bob,"" thinks Sandingham, knee-deep in death in the camps; and, concerning another lover, shot by prison guards, Sandingham observes ""the fence upon which tiny shrivelled bits of Garry still adhered""). In the end, here are honesty and hokum, pulling very nearly neck and neck; the result is a more commercial, than timeless, work.

Pub Date: April 29th, 1986
ISBN: 031226805X
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly--dist. by Little, Brown