Today I have great pleasure in welcoming Ann Bennett to Lost in a Good Book to tell us about her intriguing Bamboo Trilogy.
When did you start to write, Ann?
I’ve been writing in my spare time on and off for over twenty-five years and have several half-finished novels and numerous short stories in my collection which I might one day dust off and revive! In 2014 I was lucky enough to submit Bamboo Heart to Monsoon Books who liked it enough to offer me a publishing deal.
What was your inspiration for Bamboo Heart?
The idea for Bamboo Heart came from researching my father’s wartime experiences. He fought in the Indian Army in the Malaya campaign and was taken prisoner at the Fall of Singapore. He worked on the Thai-Burma railway and survived the sinking of a hell-ship off the Philippines.
The novel first came to life when I discovered his ‘liberation questionnaire’ in the National Archives in Kew. It was an amazing moment when I first saw it, written in his perfect copper-plate handwriting, it answered so many questions I would have liked to ask him. The discovery was the culmination of a lifetime’s quest to find out what happened to him during the war. Since my first visit to Thailand in 1985, I’d travelled to South East Asia many times. I visited Kanchanaburi and the Bridge on the River Kwai in 1988. Those visits gave me a life-long love of the region, but taught me little about what happened to Dad during the war. However, from the moment I read his questionnaire, I knew I had to write about the railway to try to bring the story to life.
In Bamboo Heart I drew directly on some of the events Dad had described. I tried to capture the suffering and courage of prisoners of war of the Japanese. The book tells the story of Tom Ellis, a prisoner enslaved on the Death Railway, and also charts the journey of his daughter, Laura, who turns her back on her comfortable lifestyle in eighties London to investigate her father’s wartime experience.
The wartime events were harrowing. So to lighten the mood, I broke it up with flashbacks to Tom’s pre-war life in colonial Penang, where he fell in love. I tried to tell a story of hope and survival, to examine the reasons why some survived the worst of ordeals and others sadly did not. I also wanted to show what an important role history plays in all our lives; how powerfully our family’s past affects our own choices and values.
My research for Bamboo Heart taught me so much more about the war in the Far East than I’d expected. I had not previously known how civilians suffered; about starvation and massacres, about bravery and sacrifice. I was struck by how the lives of everyone in the region was affected by the war and the occupation. I was inspired to explore the events from other angles and through other people’s stories, and hit upon the idea of writing a trilogy about the war in South East Asia.
What is the theme of Bamboo Island?
Bamboo Island is the story of Juliet Crosby, a plantation owner’s wife, who has lived a reclusive life since the war robbed her of everyone she loved. The sudden appearance of a stranger in the 1960s disrupts her lonely existence and stirs up unsettling memories.
I wanted to show how the war engulfed the region, how it destroyed families and lives. It was important for Juliet to be involved in her own personal struggle before the invasion changes everything. She travels from London to Penang with her sister Rose, initially for a visit, but both soon decide to settle in Malaya. Juliet marries Gavin Crosby and travels with him to his remote rubber estate, but quickly discovers that all is not quite as might first have appeared. Her life is already in turmoil when war breaks out.
Through Juliet’s eyes the reader witnesses the horrors of the Japanese occupation of Singapore: the infamous massacre at the Alexandra Hospital; the horrific Sook Ching (elimination by purification) which saw the murder of many Chinese men and the brutal treatment of internees in Changi jail. The sinking of the civilian transport ship, the Vyner Brooke, and the massacre of survivors on Bangka Island, off Sumatra, were the inspiration for the sinking of a fictitious ship, the Rajah of Sarawak, which is central to the plot of Bamboo Island. My aim, as in Bamboo Heart, was to bring the dreadful events of the Second World War to life through the story and the eyes of one character.
So who will we meet in the last book of the trilogy?
I’ve continued the theme in Bamboo Road, the story of Sirinya, a young Thai woman, who together with her family are members of the Thai underground. They risk their lives to help prisoners building the Thai-Burma railway. The events of those years have repercussions for decades to come. The book tells Sirinya’s wartime story and how in the 1970s she returns to Kanchanaburi after a long absence abroad, to settle old scores from the war years.
Bamboo Road is to be published by Monsoon Books in 2017.
You can find Bamboo Heart on Amazon here
and Bamboo Island