A Message for Nasty by Roderick Fry (Awa Press, 2022), 282pp, $40
World War II created some 20 million displaced people in Europe; Asian figures are harder to find. One Chinese historian mentions a million Chinese leaving Hong Kong out of a population of about 2.5 million after the Japanese conquest of 1941. There are no readily available statistics for the Europeans living in Hong Kong at the time of the Japanese army’s invasion, nor many details about what happened to them.
Roderick Fry’s book is the story of a New Zealand family that did survive and did make it out of Hong Kong through extraordinary circumstances. It is the wartime saga of the writer’s grandparents and their children, learnt as a kind of family lore, which he shares with us in the form of an elegant and carefully written novel. Choosing to write their story in the form of a novel allows him, as Mark Twain puts it in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to ‘stretch’ the truth at times, both to bridge gaps in the factual narratives of the two protagonists and to convincingly convey their states of mind. He also makes use of his considerable personal experience of Southeast Asia during thirty years of travels there to enrich and enliven the granular details of events as they unfold. So, the book is a form of fictionalised history, a respectable, hybrid genre whose exponents include Gore Vidal, Colm Toïbin and Haruka Murakami.
Another possible reason for the author choosing to present this material in the form of a novel may be because he is dealing with events that took place over eighty years ago, with two main characters he obviously knew well but whose world, in the context of the turmoil of the 1940s, feels pretty remote from the present. The Brooms are initially presented as a fine old couple living in one of those beautiful Devonport villas we might covet as we saunter past them. We learn that his grandfather, Vincent Broom, a retired marine engineer, could ‘fix a bicycle faster than anyone’ in his backyard workshop, and that he regaled him with stories of the sea, and of China, smugglers, water snakes and so on, but ‘there was one story my grandfather almost never mentioned’.
No surprise there; post-traumatic stress disorder in those days was hushed up. I was born in 1947, and the World War II veterans I met in the post-war years—there were many around—kept pretty quiet about their wartime experiences. They coped as best they could: some became tragic pissheads; some were impossible to live with; some needed all kinds of help from health agencies; one or two deliberately ran into a power pole on the drive home. But most of them just went on with their lives; they were the dads of my schoolmates, Māori and Pakeha. If they spoke about the War at all, they usually offered only brief accounts of their experiences.
In his Introduction, Fry makes mention of the years of research that went into his project, stating that the War was never discussed by his grandfather, but, ‘in the last three years of her life’, his grandmother ‘told me her story’. The resultant work is a synthesis drawing on documentary evidence, photographs, research, and the things his grandmother told him when she was in her mid to late eighties—and for the rest he uses a novelist’s licence.
The book is cleverly organised, presenting two parallel narratives. These are divided into chapters headed by the alternating names of the two main characters as we switch locales: one for grandmother Marie, the next for grandfather Vincent. They are temporarily separated at the start of the book, with Vincent working as a ship’s engineer in Singapore. The chapters are divided into numbered paragraphs, separating the two narrative streams, a quirky but very useful device for back-referencing.
Fry prefaces the book with an affectionate introduction to his grandparents as he knew them. We are told of his ‘elegant and exotic’ grandmother’s Macao-Chinese origins and her convent education: ‘Style and fashion were important to her, just as they were of no interest at all to my grandfather.’ A bluff Kiwi bloke to his core, we surmise. At the end of the novel, Fry provides a number of informative appendices, tracing first the history of Hong Kong, then Japanese military expansion with its conquest and occupation of much of Southeast Asia. He includes newspaper reports of the time, which present something of the atmosphere around New Zealand’s fear of imminent invasion, especially after the Japanese bombed Darwin in the far north of Australia.
The author also adds a factual summary of the fates of some of the book’s characters. There are carefully presented maps showing the separate odysseys of the couple and a number of snapshots revealing them and their four children, aged from one year to eight. Fry does not mention asking the children about their experiences.
So, what’s the plot? It starts in the middle of things with a bang as Japanese aeroplanes bomb the gas works near Marie’s apartment before the army quickly invades the city and its surrounding territory. This occurs on 8 December 1941, one day after the Japanese air force bombed Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, thus bringing the United States into the War. Marie is left stranded with her four children (and three servants) in Hong Kong, while Vincent is 2000 miles away in Singapore, another colony being overrun by Japanese troops. He escapes by the skin of his teeth in a cargo ship and ultimately ends up doing refitting work in the shipyards of Sydney, all the time trying desperately to get in touch with his family.
Marie’s struggle to keep her family safe in the increasingly violent and famished context of a brutally occupied city is hellishly difficult. She and her children witness horrors that Fry, in a rare graphic description, retails to us. We are down a back alley in Hong Kong at the end of 1941:
There was a body … A knife lay beside the naked corpse of a middle-aged woman. But this was not a murder scene. The colour of the skin and the state of the body showed the woman had most likely died of hunger or disease. She had then been butchered for meat.
Initially taken aback, I must admit I started wondering about the knife when I’d collected my thoughts. That would surely have been taken away, maybe to barter for a bit of food or, horror, to be used again. But, perhaps not—anyway, it’s a curiously melodramatic detail in an already lurid account.
British and European friends are interned, to starve behind barbed wire; Marie has to give up her lodgings to a Japanese officer for a period. (He is described as a gentlemanly type: there were humane Japanese individuals wearing the uniform of the conqueror.) Looking for a means to escape with her family, Marie sells most of her personal belongings and jewels to come to an arrangement with smugglers, who eventually get her out on a leaky boat in the dead of night.
Meanwhile, Vincent has managed to get back into China through Burma, a difficult feat, the more so as the Japanese occupy a large section of Burma. And, of course, there is civil war raging in China between the vestiges of Sun Yat-sen’s Kuomingtang and Mao Tse-Tung’s communists, with a backdrop of constant Japanese air raids as well. He is not even certain if his wife and children are still alive.
That is where the book’s curious title comes in. The ‘Message for Nasty’ motif becomes one of the hinges of the narrative, and for a few sections of the book, we are left anticipating some kind of communication link up between Marie and Victor. Intriguingly, ‘Nasty’ is something Vincent jokingly called his wife, a nickname that he later uses to address clandestine messages to her. But Marie has to wait for a very long time to get news of her husband. A strong emotional undercurrent of love and longing, of hope and waiting, of courage and endurance is established. I hesitate to use the term ‘spoiler’ but I will say the narrative sets us up to expect a happy reunion.
This is Roderick Fry’s first novel, though he has established something of a reputation as an essayist and travel writer. Fry and his family currently live in Paris, where he has a design and furnishing firm. There are resonances in A Message for Nasty that bring to mind the novelists Joseph Conrad, Pearl S. Buck, and particularly J.G. Ballard, whose autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun evokes a similar setting and historic period. Empire, yes, the book makes mention of the British outreach and domination of the East before the Japanese muscled in. But there isn’t room in the narrative for an anti-colonial tirade. On the other hand, in an appendix Fry quotes British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s scandalous and implicitly racist telegram to the heavily beleaguered military command in Singapore, whose troops eventually surrendered and disappeared into POW camps.
So this unpretentious short book has the reader going off on all kinds of tangents, flipping back and forth to the maps and annexes while googling up facts and figures. Yet one also remains fully engaged with the lives of the couple and their children as they go through several levels of Hell before ultimately ending up in a beautiful house in Devonport.
MAX OETTLI is a Swiss-born photographer, teacher and writer whose family emigrated to New Zealand. A former lecturer in photography at the Otago Polytechnic School of Art, he has been living in Geneva, Switzerland, for several years.