Something rather different from Charles den Tex, long-listed last year with his first book in English for the CWA’s New Blood Award (ironically, in the Netherlands, his home country, he has been published since 1995). Now, together with his wife Anneloes Timmerije, a journalist and an award-winning writer of literary fiction and historical non-fiction, they have fashioned something beyond the boundaries of the books normally reviewed on this site.
It is, however, an excellent book, and I would hate to see it slip unreviewed between categories, and end up neglected.
For it is first and foremost a love story, a true story (its original Dutch title translated as ‘a forgotten story of an unwavering love in wartime’) between Guus Hagers, a pilot based in Java in the Dutch East Indies, and his wife Lienke. Guus is inadvertently parted from his wife in the early stages of the Japanese war in the Pacific. A highly regarded pilot, Guus has just transported to Australia a 43-man Army detachment, a group that is planned to lead a later counter-offensive. In his absence, an unexpectedly early attack on Java succeeds in taking over the island. Evacuations are attempted but Lienke fails to gain one of the coveted places. They will remain parted, knowing little or nothing of each other’s circumstances, their longing for each other most movingly portrayed, until the war ends and Guus can finally search for her properly.
But it is not simply a love story. Based mainly on Guus’s war-time diaries, it is also a dramatic record of an arena in World War II of which, like me, you may have little knowledge. In Australia the frustrations pile up for Guus: the slowness and inefficiency of the Allied response, the lack of the necessary aircraft (in particular the cherished B-25s), the rivalries amongst the pilots, the boredom. An early exception (crime writer becoming evident?), a mission back into the combat zone, with a mysterious ‘valuable’ package that goes missing. A little obvious, I thought, but then it turns out, historian also coming to the fore, to be one of three key elements in the book, throwing light on real-life murky manoeuvring, one a gross miscarriage of justice, in the war-time history of the area. Guus, for instance, is manipulated to spy for one side in what will turn out to be a political struggle for power in the post-occupation period. In Java meanwhile we experience, through Lienke, the subjugation of the civilian population, later the internment of Dutch and mixed marriage families, and the increasing deprivation within the camps as the war proceeds.
All this is conveyed in crystal-clear often moving prose, flawlessly translated in my view by Brian Doyle-Du Breuil.
Our authors however have reserved their greatest coup for the last part of the novel, bringing the story up to 1995. A new (unidentified) first-person narrative voice is introduced, interviewing the surviving Lienke, now known as Linda and living in California. Like Robert Wilson’s standalone novel, The Company of Strangers, (though without that book’s all-encompassing and complex spy plot) these later heart-rending chapters suggest that another subject of Finding Her is what Wilson calls the ‘big lives’ of his parents generation (and dare I suggest, those of both den Tex and Timmerije?).
And it comes with a stunning and poignant last line revelation. Just like a great crime novel. And if you find any of this review intriguing, take a look at this, another eye-witness account, forceful and moving.
Finding her by Charles den Tex and Anneloes Timmerije (translated by Brian Du-Breuil) is published by World Editions