Spirit House

Written by Mark Dapin
Review by John Kachuba

At first blush this novel seems to be a coming-of-age story about 13-year-old David, who is dumped on his grandparents’ doorstep when his mother leaves with her lover. Jimmy, David’s grandfather, is seventy and a WWII veteran, having served in the Australian army in Singapore until the army surrendered to the Japanese. He spends the rest of the war in POW camps, forced to build a railroad from Thailand to Burma for the Japanese army. Now, in 1990, brutal memories of his war years begin to haunt him, and it is clear that he is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Jimmy meets regularly with a group of Jewish men, his comrades during the war, and they trade good-natured barbs and backbiting but never expose the gritty truth of their experiences. Gradually, Jimmy begins to confide more in his grandson and relates stories of his imprisonment to David. Together, they embark upon a project of reconciliation that they hope will finally put the old ghosts of war to rest.

Despite the grim subject matter, especially when describing the POW camp experiences, Dapin injects warmth and humor into this novel with the old men sometimes sounding like borscht-belt comics. There are some mysterious diary entries in the novel that may confuse readers, but these are explained in the end. Although David’s story remains unresolved, and readers will look for a better resolution for him, this remains a moving and engrossing novel about men coming to terms with the terrible, and often unexpected, legacy of war.