War & Pieces
The author joined the Royal New Zealand Navy, aged eighteen, in 1941, and I suspect that this novel is based on real incidents in his life. It is illustrated with excellent sketches made during his years in the service. The protagonist, John, spends his initial training at the Devonport naval base, and it is here, with men from a variety of backgrounds, that he learns to be a sailor. We share with him the pangs of first love and his desperation to bed a girl before being sent off to face death.
When he is sent to the Solomon Islands he meets US servicemen and experiences the thrill of jazz for the first time. Malaria nearly kills him and earns him a spell of home duty. Stationed on a ‘rock’ off the coast of New Zealand, he practices his clarinet. Then it’s off to the Philippines until the atom bomb puts an end to hostilities.
As a slice of New Zealand wartime history, this book is well worth reading, but it fails as a novel. Characters pop up and then disappear; we never learn what happened to most of them. At times John’s war appears to have consisted of illegal grog, mosquitoes, and jazz sessions, although the numerous sketches, included in the book, show an entirely different aspect of life in the Pacific war zone.