The Persimmon Tree by Bryce Courtney
I have read a few of Bryce Courtney's books; some were based in his country of birth, South Africa and others are based in Australia where he now lives. I have to be honest and say that I do prefer the ones based in South Africa as they seem to have more true emotion and the character are more real but that is just my personal feeling. My favourite books being 'The Power of One' and 'Tandia both of these are based in South Africa. His novels that I have read apart from this one that are set in Australia or based in Australian history include 'The Potato Factory' and, 'Tommo & Hawk' both set around the convict settlement days as Australian history as we know it began.
This novel is set among the Pacific islands and Australia and the story spans from 1942 with the fall of Singapore and the American landings at Guadalcanal to the ongoing fight against the Japanese for supremacy in the region and finishes after the end of the war. Bryce Courtney captures the feel of the times and the also described places so clearly that you can really picture the scenes. Like James Michener and Wilbur Smith he writes his stories with historic and geographic accuracy. He spend time building up the background so that the story fits comfortably in its setting.
The Persimmon Tree tells the very personal story of two main characters; young Nicholas Duncan ('the butterfly collector') and his sweetheart, the Eurasian/Dutch girl, Anna Van Heerden who meet as youngsters and fall for each other .However their lives quickly undergo a change as they get caught up in the events that take over the islands of Indonesia and the Pacific as a whole in WW II. The story follows the ups and downs of a fairly large and colourful cast of characters as they struggle to survive after the Japanese invasion in this area.
The story starts with Nicholas looking for butterflies in Indonesia meeting Anna's Dutch, alcoholic father. We see how the lives of the colonial Dutch are very comfortable while the locals are respectful but subservient. Nicholas is the son of a missionary, born in Japan and now living with his father in New Guinea. This background is important as it means that he speaks fluent Japanese and has a good understanding of the rainforest and jungle areas which allows him to fulfill his role in the war later in the story.
Initially I quite like Nicholas as he was quite a humble sort of lad and he was very innocent and sweet. As the story progresses though I found that his character became exceptionally annoying as he was so b... good at everything. This I found became a bore and I began to lose interest in the story at this stage.
As war break out Nicholas escapes from Java in a sailing boat given to him by Anna's father which he plans to sail to Australia. Anna and her father escape on one of the many ships leaving the islands that are filled with Dutch colonial refugees. Needless to say the ship never gets away and Anna and her father get stuck in Java as the Japanese arrive. This is the start of Anna's war story.
Nicholas however, makes it to Perth in the sailing ship with an American sailor he rescues and arrives to a hero's welcome and his war story begins from here.
Following Nicholas and Anna's stories separately through these dangerous and horrifying times, the story concludes some years later, after the war is over and when the dynamics of the Pacific region have changed forever.
This story starts off wonderfully and goes on strong for two thirds of its over 700 pages. I really found Anna's story of her struggle for survival in Java most tense, exciting and interesting but then it goes downhill as we move back to Nicholas's story. She went through some horrifying experiences dealing with an abusive alcoholic father and then the Japanese invaders who hated the Dutch with a vengeance. Anna was an interesting character who I felt sympathy for with her struggles and I could understand her relationship with the various people she came in to contact with and the horrendous decisions she had to make in order to survive.
Bryce Courtney changed the innocent and naïve Nicholas into a stereotypical hero who is completely unconvincing. It is just too much of a coincidence that Nicholas should be so brilliant at sailing, speaking fluent Japanese, knowing the jungle terrain, speaking several other native languages and also being a perfect shot and great at hand to hand combat and being a personal friend to very distinguished people. This is not a real person. No-one is that perfect and because of this I began to lose interest in this part of the story.
Along the way we meet some very colourful characters. Anna's father is awful and I felt a lot of sympathy with her as she dealt with his behavior as my father was an alcoholic later in his life. Another character who I thought Courtney portrayed in an interesting and sympathetic way was the Japanese commander who takes a liking to Anna. Some of the scenes described as the Japanese arrive and take over the village are really horrifying and you really get a feel for how terrified the local people must have felt.
The blurb on the back of the book tells us that the two young people will meet again so I am not giving anything away by telling you this. However by this time I am not really that bothered about Nicholas as he is such a Mr Perfect and so boring that I couldn' t really care if they did or didn't get together. What I did find was that Anna's story kept me gripped then Nicholas's annoyed me but the end was so rushed that it was as is Bryce Courtney had lost interest in it himself and did what the children in my class used to do and finished with 'and they all lived happily ever after.' He may as well have done that as the ending was so corny and only slightly longer than this clichéd quote. It was an anti-climax and was too neatly tied up and packaged. I thought it was a disappointing conclusion to a story that begun brilliantly.
The book is very readable and the first two thirds of it are really gripping but it loses direction and becomes a bit more 'easy to put to one side' with Nicholas's story of the war. As a book I feel it comes nowhere close to 'The power of One'.
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