The Vogel is always an interesting award, going as it does to an unpublished manuscript by a writer under 35. Over its 30-something years, it has had its share of controversy (The Hand that Signed the Paper, anyone?) and launched a number of important authors (hello Tim Winton/Kate Grenville/Gillian Mears!). Changes in the award structure a few years ago meant the book was published and released the day after the announcement of the winning story. Or, if you are lucky enough to attend the announcement ceremony, the showbag you leave with contains a couple of boxes of Vogel's breakfast cereals, and a copy of the winning book. So, I went home on Tuesday night and thought I'd better have a look - and four hours later had to put it down half-finished to be resumed and greedily finished the next day.
Tomakazu Ibaraki is the main character. The story starts in 1942 as he is on his way to an internment camp in South Australia. He had been working as a doctor in Broome, before being detained and sent to Loveday camp where a number of resident Japanese nationals (as distinct from prisoners-of-war) are interned. Many of the men had lived and worked in Australia for years, but some of them are locked up merely for having a Japanese parent, even though they are Australian-born and bred, and it is the anger these men feel at being treated as enemy aliens that is one of the most interesting themes of the book. As the reserved Tomakazu struggles to fit in, it becomes apparent that he is suffering from a sadness and guilt that predates his arrival in Broome in 1938. The novel moves in time, from 1942 back to 1938 and also 1934, when as a new medical intern Tomakazu is offered the chance to pursue microbiology research at the Army Medical College. Only gradually does he learn what the aim of the research truly is, and the internal conflict between his moral integrity and the need to retain honour by keeping to his commitment of confidentiality creates insurmountable difficulties that affect the rest of his life choices.
After Darkness is a compelling and finely written book. It reveals a little-known aspect of World War II history through a character who has not been able to reconcile societal expectations and personal experience. I truly think Christine Piper is an author to watch, and I won’t be surprised if in years to come her name is in the list of great Australian authors launched by the Vogel Award.
‘A brave, profound meditation on identity, trauma, loss and courage… reminds us that there are two sides to every war and that history never ceases to be written… A novel that demands its place alongside Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Mark Dapin’s Spirit House.’ – Stephen Romei, The Australian
Buy these books at Abbey's (131 York Street Sydney) ~ An Aladdin's cave for readers