Book Review: The Bird in the Bamboo Cage by Hazel Gaynor

Harper Collins €15.99

I’ve often wondered what makes historical novelists tick. It’s hard enough to write a novel – any novel, in any genre – without giving yourself the headache of all that research, ensuring your attention to every tiny detail is impeccable, writing in the language of the day, whatever that day might be, poring over dusty documents in dusty archives, depending on the kindness of strangers in libraries, reading through reams of personal testimonies. And I think the answer must be that this is half the enjoyment. Historical novelists hunger to write, but they also hunger for an intimate knowledge of times past and will seemingly go to great lengths to attain it. Hazel Gaynor has taken the trip down memory lane so many times now, and she always delivers. Whether it’s Monaco in the glitzy fifties, Covent Garden with its flower girls in Victorian London, a far-flung lighthouse off the coast of Northumberland or, in this case, an English school in China during WWII, she is never less than wholly authentic.  

The Bird in the Bamboo Cage is, like all of Gaynor’s novels, a work of fiction based on fact. Chefoo School in Shantung Province, China was a school for the children of English missionaries working in Asia. When China was invaded by Japan during WWII, Japanese forces took over the school, using it as a military base. From 1941 to 1945, the staff and children of the school endured the privations and suffering of Japanese occupation until Americans soldiers finally freed them. This novel is the testimony of two protagonists, young Nancy Plummer, ten years old, and her teacher Elspeth Kent. From these dual perspectives the reader gets a flavour of what life was like during occupation. And although it was a living hell, there were moments of great kindness and indeed great bravery on the part of both the teachers and the children. The girl guides, led by Miss Kent, instilled in her youngsters a kind of resilience that might otherwise have been hard to muster.

The detail in this novel is stunning. Much homework has been done. And the awful suffering is chronicled carefully, respectfully, without splaying it all over the page. Restraint is not easy in describing such horrors and Gaynor is to be commended for accurately portraying the monstrosity of war without feeling the need to catalogue the gore.

Ultimately,  the reader is left with a feeling for the extraordinary power of grace under fire, the absolute necessity of bravery when one doesn’t feel brave, and a real sense of how the “make do and mend” generation of WWII shaped the future for those of us yet to come. Her best yet.

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