Loving the thing you’re supposed to hate
My Beautiful Enemy
By Cory Taylor Text Publishing, 272pp, $29.99
IT seems to take no time to read My Beautiful Enemy, the second novel from Brisbane author Cory Taylor, whose 2011 debut, Me and Mr Booker, was a critical success. The distance between the first page and the last feels like a journey between city bus stops. Admittedly, it’s a fairly short book (how many trees have to die for the generous leading that makes every large-format paperback look as if it were designed for the visually impaired?) but it takes its pace from Taylor’s engaging style and compelling story.
Arthur Wheeler is a young and virginal guard at a Japanese internment camp in country Victoria at the end of World War II. He becomes obsessed with one of the inmates, a beautiful, mercurial former circus performer who goes by the English name of Stanley. The camp is run benevolently, but the imprisoned ‘‘ enemy aliens’’ are listless and aggrieved. Their lives are frozen and they fear both the war’s continuance and its end. A pathetic, impotent nationalist movement recruits among the youth, and Stanley seems to fall under its leader’s spell.
Wheeler hopes to save Stanley — from the camp, the war, the nationalists and an imminent forced return to Japan — but there appears to be little he can do. His yearning for the Japanese boy leaves a chasm of unfulfilled desire that cuts a fissure through the rest of his life, a nostalgia for something that never was.
Taylor tells Wheeler’s story with economy and verve. Mostly, it feels perfectly true: to the experience of a love without sex and a war without bullets. Wheeler turns his back on the thing that might make him happy, and then all the things that make him unhappy too. He’s confused and weak, alienated, rejecting all his choices because he can’t come to terms with himself. He writes letters to the people he loves, then burns them before they can be sent. He’s frightened to admit anything.
And yet his futile devotion to the memory of Stanley redeems him. He is directionless and unfulfilled, permanently detached, but he has been left that way by love. My Beautiful Enemy is a fine book, littered with clues that suggest Taylor’s next novel should be a better one.
The disciplined simplicity of the language that propels the plot at such speed allows Taylor little space for poetry. But on the occasion she lets her language stray into metaphor, she can be very good indeed. A cat stares with sly green eyes ‘‘ blinking occasionally in an uneven way as if its internal mechanism was winding down’’. The laundered shirts of a man in an empty marriage and unfulfilling job hang on the line ‘‘ with their arms dangling down like dead men’’.
A couple of the characters seem to exist largely as ciphers for political positions. And while Taylor is generous rather than naive when she gives the camp staff their opinions, they have a bit more empathy for the plight of the internees than might be expected.
My Beautiful Enemy would benefit from more of the linguistic invention that is clearly within Taylor’s reach. Her dialogue could be better, particularly the conversations between guards. Their awkward profanities and stilted slang don’t sound authentic. Lines such as ‘‘ Speaking of talent, have you seen the pair on that Dutch sheila Sophie whatshername’’ and ‘‘ I was going to offer you that lovely virgin with the big knockers’’ sound more like coy British pantomime than the joyous vulgarity of young Australian soldiers.
But when Taylor writes of fumbling halfloves and lives sacrificed to drown the very desires that would make them whole, she shows how good a writer she can be and — it is to be hoped — how much better a writer she will become.