THE BLAZING AIR by Oswald Wynd


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In The Singapore Grip (1979), J. G. Farrell made a bright, witty, broad mural from the beleaguered British colony during the WW II siege of Singapore; Wynd (The Ginger Tree, The Forty Days) focuses instead on one family--the Gourlays, tinmine owners on the Malay peninsula. Squire of Estate House near the mines is big John Gourlay, who flaunts his Portuguese/Asiatic bloodlines (undoubtedly now swamped by Scottish) and watches over his territory with a leonine dedication. ""Echo to his bellow"" is his American wife Ruth, still infatuated with her long-ago ""first shock of love"": a husband who dallies with Malay women. And their son Roy, with (like his father) little sensitivity to others' decidedly subordinate egos, is married to Fay, an English clergyman's daughter whose cool marriage-with two small children--seems a ""confusion of obligations."" Also on the premises: frequent and ""awkward"" visitor Hamish, a middle-aged Scots engineer who, throughout, will offer a crabbed but pragmatic sanity in the face of establishment superstructure. But the tenuous Gourlay status quo is shattered by the Japanese invasion--which, for Fay, means that fear becomes a ""personal revelation"" and routine a palliative . . . until one dark night she and son Angus, already bent on survival, watch Japanese soldiers sift into their garden and unaccountably disappear. On the auto drive south to Singapore with Angus and daughter Lisa, Fay sees familiar landmarks become as incoherent and directionless as a manic compass needle. And, after a stay in the besieged city, she and her children, aboard a battered evacuation boat under fire, will blink from sight. Roy, too, will vanish in a Japanese prison--but only after awakening to love and compassion . . . while Big John disappears shortly before the sound of shotgun-fire at the jungle hideout where he and Ruth have kept an eye on Estate House. But, finally, Hamish's jungle trek, leading a fatuous British officer to parlay with a Chinese Communist leader, ends in reuniting Ruth and Angus--who is alive after all: the Gourlay men always ""survive by using someone else."" Unfortunately, this landscape of Doomsday disillusionments tends to sag a good deal: the Goutlays are given to long meditations--which all have a sameness in rhythm and taste. But at his best, reminiscent of (but not quite equal to) Farrell and Paul Scott, Wynd makes something mesmerizing out of his sharp minutiae of place and action, blending the many ethnic shadings into a rich, gray nightmare.

Pub Date: Sept. 18th, 1981
Publisher: Ticknor & Fields/Houghton Mifflin