The Persimmon Tree is unashamedly a love story. I've always wanted to write one but until now have been afraid to do so. The reason is simple enough: most men in my experience have very little idea of what really goes on in a woman's heart or head. Now, at the age of 74, I just might know enough and have sufficient courage to write on the subject - the way of a man with a woman, of a woman with a man.
My story is set in the Pacific, although not in the paradise we've always been led to believe exists there. It is 1942 in Java and the Japanese are invading the islands like a swarm of locusts.
I have tried to capture the essence of love - how in a world gone mad with malice and hate, it has the ability to forgive and to heal. As it is in this story, love is always hard earned but, in the end, a most wonderful and necessary emotion. Without love, life for most of us would lack true meaning.
Normally I make a fairly concerted effort to avoid too many spoilers in my reviews but the things that I want to talk about about this book, I don't think I am going to be able to do this. So, in case you don't want to read the spoilers, I will start with my summary!
Despite all that I am about to say below about this book, it was a cracking read. In some ways it reminded me of the books that I used to love by Noel Barber. A love story set against the dramatic theatre war - in this case - the Pacific front of World War II. I also learnt a fair bit about a few things that I thought that I should probably have already known about. For example, whilst I knew that Indonesia had a Dutch colonial past, I didn't really KNOW it, and I really didn't know that Jakarta used to be called Batavia, and that the name of the country and the cities were only changed as little ago as the end of WWII. It also provided fascinating details about the role of Coastwatchers in the islands during the war. These were men who basically went into the jungle by themselves and then relayed information about Japanese troop movements to the Allies, providing crucial information for such decisive battles as those held in Guadalcanal and other places. Reading this has certainly piqued my interest a little. Bryce Courtenay is a bit hit and miss for me, but this was definitely a hit!
And now for the spoilers!!!
The three things that I wanted to talk about in terms of this book are first of all the use of mixed tenses, info dump, and the love story aspect of this story.
The book is basically divided into three parts. The first is written from Nick Duncans, the main male character, point of view in first person, as is the third part of the book. It is the second part of the book where I had issues. It focuses on the main female character Annas experiences, but is told in third person, current tense...most of the time, but every now and again a comment will be put in by Nick in the first person, but almost as if he is telling the story of what happened now, and therefore is looking back and so is in past tense. Things like saying that as we know now, this is what was actually happening elsewhere in the world on such and such a day. There is nothing at the beginning of the book to suggest that the book is being written looking back in time, so it is just every now and again that this aspect is dropped into the text, and it really took me out of the flow of the story when it did happen.
Secondly, there were quite a few times when I felt as though the author had learnt about something that he thought was interesting, and therefore that he felt that he needed to then tell us about it. For example, there was lots of info about sailing boats, butterflies, Japanese language and also Kinbaku - a kind of Japanese sexual torture involving hemp ropes. All of these things fitted within the story, but occasionally there was just too much. At 700 plus pages this was already a big story without having a little too much padding in there!
The third, and to me quite interesting, point I wanted to make about this book is the love story aspect. In the Inside Cover Copy, Bryce Courtenay clearly states that this is 'unashamedly a love story'. It is very interesting to see what a 72 year old man thinks is a love story.
Our main male character is Nick Duncan. When we first meet him, he is about to turn 18 years of age, about to join up and go off to war. He is quite a tall, well built, handsome young man (boy). He meets Anna, who is a half Javanese, half Dutch girl of 16 and basically the two of them fall instantly in love, and promise that when they escape to Australia they are going to be together forever, and this is where the main love story comes from in the story. Notice I say main, because Nick sails off to Australia with a reluctant shipmate, less than four weeks later he arrives in Perth and meets Marg, who then he also loves, and who introduces him to manhood (and yes, he will always be grateful for that!). Next, off to Melbourne where he meets Mary, who won't let him go below the chin, but he has a relationship with her as well. Basically, nearly every woman that Nick meets during the course of the story falls in love with him, and even at the end of the book he talks about not living celibately in the islands for the five years between the end of the war and when he finds Anna again. Don't get me wrong...I've pretty much fallen for him too! He's a great guy, but I think there was only one character who got a fair amount of page time who didn't fall for him...and that was only because she was practically engaged to an Air Force man! The only thing easier for Nick than getting women, is winning military honours!
As for Anna, after Nick sails off, Anna is meant to leave Java with her family, but it turns out that the boat can't leave and so she is stuck in Java during the Japanese occupation. She captures the eye of the Japanese commander and basically becomes trained in Japanese, and in some of the arts of a geisha. Most particularly she is trained in the art of Kinbaku, which I mentioned earlier. Later, she is almost raped, becomes a drug addict as a result of something the Japanese did to her. After the war ends, she basically becomes a brothel owner, and yet.....she manages to keep her pearl intact, and yes by that I do mean that she somehow still managed to be a virgin!
It was interesting to me that the great love story is between people who spent only two weeks together at the beginning of the book. I am sure that that is how it has happened for some people so that's not my main point, but basically the fact that every woman he met loved Nick and yet, Anna remained a virgin for him, was a bit revealing to me!