At the end of the Second World War allied intelligence services surveyed newly-released prisoners of war with so-called liberation questionnaires. My novel, Bamboo Heart, started life when I discovered my father’s liberation questionnaire in the National Archives at Kew. It was an amazing moment when I first saw it; written in his perfect copper-plate hand in pencil, it answered so many questions I would like to have asked. From that moment I knew I had to write about his experiences as a prisoner-of-war on the Death Railway in Thailand.
This discovery was the culmination of a lifetime’s quest to find out what had happened to my dad during the war. He died when I was only seven, and growing up I became increasingly interested in his past. He hardly spoke about the war, having started a new life with my mother on his return to England in 1945. I was interested enough to travel to Kanchanaburi to see the railway in 1988. On that trip I fell in love with South East Asia, but found out very little about what had happened to dad there.
I took the tragic events Dad described in his questionnaire as the basis of Tom’s story in Bamboo Heart. I wanted to write about those events from the perspective of one man, within the framework of a fast-moving narrative. My aim was to bring those events alive without it feeling like a history lesson.
The scenes I was describing were harrowing. So to lighten the mood, I broke it up with flashbacks to Tom’s pre-war life in colonial Penang, where he fell in love. I also introduced a parallel modern plot, the story of Tom’s own daughter’s search for the truth about the war. For Laura’s story I drew upon my own life as a disaffected young lawyer in the eighties, and upon my memories of those times. The novel touches on the Wapping Riots, which I remember well as I lived in North London at the time. Co-incidentally the first day of serious rioting was 15th February 1986, the anniversary of the Fall of Singapore.
I tried to tell a story of hope and survival, to examine the reasons why some survived the worst of ordeals and others sadly did not. I also wanted to show what an important role history plays in all our lives; how powerfully our family’s past affects our own choices and values.
My research for Bamboo Heart taught me so much more about the war in the Far East than I had expected... I had not previously known how civilians suffered; about starvation and massacres, about bravery and sacrifice. It inspired me to explore those events from other angles and through other peoples’ stories.
Bamboo Heart is the first novel in a planned trilogy. I have just finished writing Bamboo Island, about Juliet, a plantation owner’s wife, who has lived a reclusive life since the war robbed her of everyone she loved. The sudden appearance of a stranger disrupts her lonely existence and stirs up unsettling memories.
I’m also working on a third novel: Bamboo Road. It is written from the perspective of a young Thai woman, living in Kanchanaburi in 1942. It tells of how the influx of the Japanese army and their prisoners-of-war into that remote jungle region affects her life.
(This post is an edited version of a piece I wrote for Asian Books Blog in May this year.