By Nevil Shute
Jeanne, a young English woman, is taken prisoner by the Japanese in Malaya during World War II. She and other women and children are marched across Malaya from one village to another. One Japanese commander after another refuses to take responsibility for them and sends them on their way. This goes on for over six months. Under-nourished and receiving little medical attention, fraught with illness, half of them die but not Jeanne.
Along the way, the women are befriended by two Australian soldiers, also prisoners. One of them, Joe, steals several chickens from a nearby Japanese officer’s home in order to feed them. When the Japanese find out, they crucify him and force the women and children to watch, then move on.
Months later, in another village, with the Japanese guard escorting the women dead after an illness, they’re left to their own devices. They work in the village’s rice paddies to support themselves for the next three years until the war ends.
Years later, back in England, Jeanne receives a sizable inheritance from a deceased uncle. Armed with sufficient funds, she returns to the village in Malaya where she and the other women worked in the rice paddies. In gratitude to the villagers for supporting her and the other women during the war, she has a well built in the center of town to make life easier for the women of the village since there is no running water.
She then finds out that Joe survived his ordeal at the hands of the Japanese and travels to Australia to find him. Fate brings them together, and she starts a new life in the outback.
This story is told, in part, by the lawyer in England who manages the trust fund Jeanne’s uncle set up for her in the event of his death. The lawyer relates Jeanne’s story, as she tells it to him in person and through her letters.
In a way, this book reminded me of a memoir I read a couple of years ago. Unbroken is the story of Olympic track star Louis Zamperini’s life in a Japanese concentration camp during World War II. At one point while Jeanne and the other women are marching across Malaya under Japanese guard, she wonders if life would be better in a camp. If she knew what was happening to Zamperini, probably at about the same time…
At the end of the book, the author includes a note in which he explains that during World War II, the Japanese marched a group of women and children across Sumatra, not Malaya. Why, then, did he set that part of the story in Malaya? He should have explained his reason for re-inventing history. Otherwise, if I were Australian, and you were to ask me if this was a good book, I would say, “Oh my word!”