by Julia Kuttner
Finding Jack, by Gareth Crocker
In the course of my reading addiction I have come across several stories now about A Man and His Dog; nothing beats ‘Racing in the Rain’ by Garth Stein, but ‘Finding Jack’ is a worthy example of the genre, touching, funny, almost unbearably suspenseful and a six-hanky read: animal stories tug at the heartstrings whether one wants them to or not, and the protagonists of this novel have much tragedy to overcome before their lives take a turn for the better. In a prologue as notable for its prose of deepest purple (where was the editor?!) as for setting the scene, Fletcher Carson reveals to his good friend that after the deaths of his wife and daughter in a plane crash, he has joined the army to fight in Vietnam: it is January, 1972; his life is meaningless without them and he is hoping to die soon fighting for the defeat of Communism in South East Asia.
Six months later, he is still alive and fully involved in the hell that the rest of his platoon has to endure; throughout their daily ordeal they look after each other, creating strong bonds that can only be forged in war, and Fletcher comes to realize that even though he still doesn’t care about living, he cares about his fellow soldiers, and in particular about a wounded military dog who appears to have strayed from its unit: the labrador Jack can sniff out bombs and snipers when his wounds heal and saves the Platoon on numerous occasions - only to be abandoned as ‘surplus to requirements’ at war’s end when the American forces leave Vietnam. Here begins the main thrust of the novel – the lengths to which Fletcher will go to save his beloved friend, the only precious thing left in his life. You better have those hankies ready! I couldn’t put the book down until the end, and despite all the privations that Fletcher and Jack suffered, almost wept again with relief to know that they survived – and isn’t that an example of what a master storyteller Gareth Crocker is, to engender such emotion in the reader, and to paint a picture so convincingly of the hell on earth endured by good young Americans sent by their politicians to a war they couldn’t win. And it is a sorry footnote that of the several thousand life-saving dogs in the canine units sent to Vietnam, less than 400 were permitted to come home. We are fortunate that Man’s Best Friend hasn’t elected to transfer his affections somewhere else. Highly recommended.
A Man You Can Bank On, by Derek Hansen
To the dedicated reader, Derek Hansen should need no introduction; his first novel, ‘Lunch with the Generals’ generated a solid fan base (and I’m right there in the van!) who knows that subsequent novels will always be great reads, entertaining page-turners that are satisfying and well-plotted. ‘A Man You Can Bank on’ is no exception, and though the story takes on a Keystone Cops air and an element of farce, especially towards the end , Mr. Hansen controls the action and his characters admirably without once inducing the reader to mutter cynically ‘Yeah, right’. And that’s no mean feat, considering the plot:
The NSW outback town of Munni-Munni, hardly a dot on the map, is dying: mortgages are being foreclosed, Bank Manager Lambert Hampton has been forced into early retirement and his daughter Sophie, the town’s only schoolteacher, has been informed by the authorities that the school may have to close. Lambert’s beloved wife has recently died of a brain tumour and life appears to be utterly hopeless – until three desperate crims decide to bury their three million dollar haul from a bookie robbery and are observed doing so just outside the town: what a stroke of luck! Lambert uses the money to revive Munni-Munni and its inhabitants: they have robbed the crooks! With the huge cash injection new and successful small businesses are started; everyone drives a Toyota Camry; (Lambert got a good deal from Toyota); mortgages are paid off and there is a thriving business in Jack Russells; everyone has one and the litters fetch big money interstate. Fate has finally smiled on Munni-Munni – until the crims get out of jail 10 years later and return to disinter their loot, only to find it gone. Predictably, that’s when the brown stuff hits the fan: Mr. Hansen has created a fine cast of villains ranging from the ‘duh’ variety to the Boss Big Kev, all single-mindedly determined to get what’s ‘rightfully’ theirs after spending 10 years in jail dreaming about spending it, and a wonderful array of town and bush eccentrics equally determined to protect their investments, their town and their lives. This is indeed a great read, a you-beaut romp through the outback with more humour than you can shake a stick at, and a convincing story of a man’s devotion to his family, friends and sense of place. Great entertainment.
Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh
This novel is the first book of a trilogy, and an exhaustive account of Britain’s infamous Opium trade, poppies grown and manufactured into the drug in India and sold to China in a bid to unman and enslave both populations – until the Chinese Mandarins decide to block further imports of the poppy to their country, thus starting the Opium Wars in the late 1830s, a conflict championed by all ‘right-thinking’ British importers and supporters of Free Trade everywhere – or more correctly, a fight by them to retain the huge profits and enormous riches gained in living off the misery of others. This story is an ambitious undertaking; a great sprawling mess of a tale centred around the 1838 voyage of the Ibis, a two-masted schooner fitted out originally as a slaver, then altered minimally after the abolition of slavery to transport indentured Indian labourers to the Mauritius Islands. The Ibis’s next port of call is Canton, there to deliver its supplementary cargo of Opium, but such is the detail, the scene-setting, the sheer sweep of the story that at the end of Book One the Ibis is nowhere near Mauritius, but instead fighting a mighty storm, with an officer murdered and several escapees deciding to take their chances in a stolen longboat – Mein Gott! What an ending: I am nearly as much up in the air as the crashing waves and screeching winds so thrillingly described by Mr. Ghosh, and am still marveling at the ease with which he has brought an initially bewildering and polyglot array of characters (almost a cast of thousands, and every one has a backstory) into being, then pared them down convincingly until the remainder through many a different circumstance end up as voyagers on the Ibis. This novel is also notable for the almost unintelligible mixture of Hindusthani, Urdu, Lascar and old British slang used as dialogue, and I had great fun reading the origins of many of our English words still in use today. Mr. Ghosh has crafted an adventure story in the fine tradition of the great 19th century classics; he’s a worthy successor to Conrad, Defoe and Melville and I am looking forward with great anticipation to Volume 2, ‘River of Smoke’. A treat is surely in store, and I hope Mr. Ghosh is hard at work on volume 3. Highly recommended.