Bamboo Heart

Written by Ann Bennett
Review by Nancy Henshaw

In the late 1930s, Tom Ellis has found his perfect niche in Penang as overseer of United Rubber. He is his own master, the island is beautiful, the social life great. Best of all, he meets Joy de Souza. His idyll with the lovely Joy is brutally disrupted by world events and he becomes a soldier. As war in Europe spreads worldwide, Japanese invaders, who are committed, superbly armed and trained, carve their way to victory. Tom, one amongst thousands, becomes a prisoner-of-war. To his captors all such men have been false to King George, oath-breakers who should have died in battle. They are worthless, less than beasts of burden, their fate to be worked to death, tortured and starved on the Death Railway. Throughout these nightmare years, Tom is sustained only by his memory of Joy.

In the 1960s, a time of freedom and experiment, Laura Ellis has never known her father as well as she would like but only with his death does she determine to solve tantalising fragments of mystery. Who was Joy de Souza? What was in the letter burned by Laura as a truculent teenager? Does the High Top Hotel survive?

Bamboo Heart has been written under strong compulsion after thorough research and even after so many years the novel makes distressing reading. One must strive to understand how cruelty could be so sustained. The culture clash was total; the guards were dishonoured even by associating with such prisoners.