In 1944, a group of Japanese POWs escaped from a prison camp in a rural Australian town. Keneally’s latest historical novel relates the lead-up to this event from the perspectives of many characters, including Japanese and Italian prisoners, the camp’s commanders and several residents of the town.
Though the reader knows from the start that the breakout is imminent, thanks to an author's note, Keneally (The Daughters of Mars, 2013, etc.) manages to sustain the mounting tension. There are a number of compelling personalities, including the camp’s British commander, Col. Ewan Abercare, who's trying to win back his wife’s trust after having a public affair; the commander’s distrustful underling, Maj. Bernard Suttor, creator of a popular radio serial; Tengan, a handsome and haughty Japanese airman, a leader among the zealots who dream only of death at the hands of the “enemy”; Ban, the Christian convert and outcast among his fellow Japanese, who sacrifices himself to warn the authorities about the impending breakout; and Alice Herman, a young Australian woman who falls into a steamy affair with the Italian prisoner working on her father-in-law’s farm while her barely remembered husband languishes as a POW in Austria. Keneally shares his deeply believable and flawed characters’ conflicting perspectives sensitively and with great empathy, expressing the full range of humanity in a few hundred pages. He does an extraordinary job of making all his characters compelling and sympathetic, with fully formed back stories, even those whose perspectives are likely to be the most foreign to the reader.
The somewhat didactic title doesn’t do the book justice, and the occasional overwriting can be distracting. Nevertheless, Keneally blends history, romance and wartime intrigue in a remarkable piece of historical fiction with a strong sense of place and time.