Loving the thing you’re sup­posed to hate

My Beau­ti­ful En­emy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mark Dapin Mark Dapin’s

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.

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