Hiroshima Joe

Title: Hiroshima Joe

Author: Martin Booth

Published: 1985

Genre: war + prison novel

Period: Just two periods: the WWII years, and 1952. There's also a brief epilogue set in 1985.

One-sentence synopsis: Hiroshima Joe is a war novel executed via character study: Joe Sandingham fights in the defense of Hong Kong against the 1941 Japanese invasion, spends the next several years in a variety of internment camps, then looks back on these events from the perspective of the sordid mess his life's become seven years after the war ended.

Cultural focus (i.e. is the book about westerners or Chinese): Westerners. Joe is English, and nearly all of the book's action takes place in the company of English soldiers or western prisoners of war.

Evocation of Hong Kong setting: Excellent. Just as is the case in his memoir Gweilo, which is reviewed and traced out in detail at our sister site, gwulo.com, Booth's great strength as a novelist is his ability to draw his reader into this book's place and time. And again much of the action here in Hiroshima Joe takes place in areas familiar to Gweilo readers: the back streets of Homantin, the hills and twistings roads of Hong Kong Island, the docks in west Kowloon, and so on.

The war sections are also very good. There are two major battle sequences, one on Wong Nai Chung Gap, and the other down in the streets of Causeway Bay. Booth works in a lot of detail, e.g.:

Furniture was wedged tightly into the corner shopfront and sandbags were in place three-high along the base of this barricade. The dull daylight pierced through the cracks and crannies. Sandingham had the Sten gun and two Canadians had the Bren. Across the floor, Bob Bellerby had another Sten. Through those cracks in their flimsy defence they could see along several hundred yards of Yee Wo Street. It was deserted. In several places, the tram lines had been wrecked during endless daylight bomb raids, the tracks twisting upward and curling back as if torn loose by some giant-sized sardine-tin key. A tram, gutted by fire, lay on its side halfway down the stretch under their surveillance. It was a major source of their attention, for its contorted steel frame and chassis bed provided more than adequate cover. (p. 87)

The parts of the book set in the Japanese internment camps, both in Stanley in Hong Kong, and then later in Japan itself, are equally good at pulling the reader into these horrific contexts. There is frequent graphic detail, but it's justified by the subject matter.

Inscrutability index, on a scale of 1-10 (i.e., if the book is written by a westerner, to what degree does he see Chinese culture as 'inscrutable'?): I’ll give it a 2 -- that is, not very inscrutable at all. Booth is quite unselfconscious in drawing his Chinese characters, rarely calling attention to their 'difference'. How well he really 'gets' Chinese culture is another question, but there's certainly little maundering about with 'inscrutability' here.

Typhoon count: One, finally! What the book's single typhoon lacks in meteorological excitement it certainly makes up for in metaphorical impact. The typhoon sequence is in some ways the heart of the book.

Review: Hiroshima Joe is a profoundly sad story. Its events are harsh: Joe experiences war, fights desperately for survival in internment/labor camps, and struggles to silence his demons in his empty post-war years.

Since Hiroshima Joe follows its protagonist's life so closely, it stands or falls on Booth's ability to draw his character. And it stands. Joe is not at all who you might expect him to be -- he's no conventional hero; that's for sure -- but he is believable, vulnerable, sympathetic (in spite of his numerous and ugly flaws), and always very human. He's seeking a beauty he knows can never be his, and it's heartbreaking.

Perhaps the highest praise for Hiroshima Joe is Booth's ability to explore tragedy -- in several forms, including the one obviously suggested by the book's title -- without descending into bitterness. This is a difficult challenge for war novels, and Booth overcomes it with brutal elegance.

I highly recommend Hiroshima Joe, especially if you've read and enjoyed Gweilo.

Bonus information: This novel has many and varied virtues, but there was one flaw that really got under my skin -- it's badly edited, and this fault ends up being a distraction and a real pity. First, there are numerous careless word-choice errors, e.g. 'hoards' instead of 'hordes' and 'grizzly' instead of 'grisly' (given the book's content, this last one is especially unfortunate).

Second, Booth makes a valiant attempt to write dialog for several minor American characters in their vernacular, but fails utterly. I can't recall more misremembered and/or misconceived American local knowledge, idioms and slang outside Agatha Christie's oeuvre. For example, one of Booth's American characters tells a story about his romantic rival's car slipping off a 'carriageway' and falling into a river. No American would ever use that term. Another American POW goes on about the snow in Oklahoma reaching the roofs of his farmplace's buildings, and tobogganing across it: it snows only infrequently in Oklahoma. Perhaps most implausibly, Booth stages a scene in which a group of American POWs join their British couterparts in a spontaneous rendition of 'Rule Britannia' when the war ends: not only would American soldiers not know the words to such a song, they'd never make the tacit admission that anyone other the good ol' US of A finished off the Japanese and won the war.

A good editor would surely have caught some of these gaffes, and the book would have been better for it.

Getting your hands on a copy:

The Amazon link is here.

This book is available for borrowing in the Hong Kong Public Library System. You can search for copies here. Please note that if you get the copy from the Lockhart Road branch, and are bothered by the small coffee stain on page 167, I offer my profuse apologies -- it really was an accident!

Next up: A double bill! I'll review Xu Xi's Hong Kong Rose and Stephen Coonts's Hong Kong.


The Hong Kong Novels

Thanks and am off to order it now...  I've never tried Booth's fiction.

A great crime thriller you might like (or may have even read) is John Burdett's The Last Six Million Seconds.  Burdett is an ex hong kong lawyer. Its terribly grisly but totally riveting and it makes  a refreshing change from all The Peak novels as it's mostly set in Mong Kok. It was written pre-handover (thats what the title refers to) so I wonder if it would be a little dated now or maybe its reached that point where its become historical?     

I also used to like the Yellowthread St crime series which are decades old now.  I picked up some old tatty copies in a secondhand bookshop. They even filmed a series based on the books for British TV in the late eighties which was OK.

Can't wait to hear what you think about Stephen Coonts. 

Re HK novels

Hi HKfan;

Thanks for the Burdett tip -- I knew vaguely that he had a Hong Kong connection, but I've only read a couple of his novels set in Thailand. They were indeed pretty good. I've not heard of the Yellowthread St series -- do you have any tips on where to start with that one?

As for Mr Coonts, let's just say his work had a powerful effect on me. That review is coming soon!