There’s something Kazuo Ishiguro-like in Christine Piper’s debut novel, After Darkness.
In Ishiguro’s earlier novels, the Anglo-Japanese writer featured men conflicted between honour, loyalty and discretion over truth. In The Remains of the Day, to English butler, Mr Stevens, personal feelings and emotions are anathema: it is his dignity, professionalism and loyalty to Lord Darlington that define him. Tradition, status and protocol – as well as unquestioning loyalty to the Emperor – define Masuji Ono, a once-successful artist in pre-war Japan. But, in An Artist of the Floating World, Ono with his imperialist politics is now something of an outcast. As narrators, both men reflect on their earlier selves.
Alternating between three different time narratives, Christine Piper’s After Darkness is narrated by Japanese doctor, Tomakazu Ibaraki.
The thrust of the story is the internment of Japanese residents of Australia in early 1942 when Japan entered World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbour. Finding himself interned in Loveday, a remote prison camp in South Australia, Ibaraki looks back at events leading up to his arrival in Australia.
Ibaraki mixes observations of the everyday at the camp, where ‘pure’ Japanese are imprisoned alongside mixed race or those who have lived in Australia their entire lives, with reflections on his broken marriage. His role in Japan’s medical research into germ warfare in the 1930s and its personal impact is (slowly) revealed.
Fleeing Tokyo in 1938 for the small pearling town of Broome in northern Western Australia, Ibaraki finds himself in ‘enemy’ country at the outbreak of war in the Pacific.
Like Stevens and Ono in Ishiguro’s novels, Ibaraki places honour, reputation and dignity above all else. His discretion and inability to objectify the world around him costs him his marriage. His shame and potential loss of face prevents him from being truthful with Sister Bernice at the Broome hospital.
“In keeping my silence I hadn’t exercised the very quality that makes us human: our capacity to understand each other.”
Ironically, it’s only at Loveday that a sense of himself and a sense of questioning can come to the fore. A sense of honour and tradition initially ensures that Ibaraki cannot believe Yamada is guilty of assaulting Stan or that the Japanese Camp Committee is racist towards the mixed race internees. But his emotional distancing is challenged and, slowly, Ibaraki confronts his present, and, in doing so, also his past.
After Darkness, in its subject, is a fascinating read. Strong in context – little is written about the internment of ‘aliens’ in Australia in WWII – but not very convincing in content. Like Ibaraki himself, there are things that cannot be talked about in public and it comes across as all very clean. The daily grind of life in Loveday is glossed – daily dawn-walks around the camp, visits to the Buddhist shrine, baseball competitions, ambling across to the medical centre hardly capture a world where, if not exactly a tough prison camp, would still be full of men denied their liberty.
Ultimately, After Darkness is just a little too dull, a little too uninvolving. Christine Piper is a highly-regarded short story writer – and I could not help but feel that, with judicious editing, this would have made an interesting long short story!
Shortlisted for the 2015 Miles Franklin Award, Christine Piper lost out to Sofie Laguna and The Eye of the Sheep.