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.
4 thoughts on “Bamboo Heart – Inspirations Part 2”
A fascinating post, Ann.
Thanks Siobhan. Lots of interesting links etc. I enjoyed writing it!
It’s easy to tell that your characters are very alive to you, Ann. It’s exciting to hear you talk about how you developed the story. Hugs!
Thanks so much for checking out my blog Teagan. There’s more to come soon! Ann