The Widow and Her Hero

Written by Thomas Keneally
Review by Karen Wintle

This book starts with the hero’s death and comes full circle. For the past sixty years Grace has been haunted by the death of her young husband, Captain Leo Waterhouse, who was killed on a covert commando mission during the Second World War, into the heart of Singapore, shortly after their marriage.

Leo’s role in the war was mysterious. He was dashing but reckless, an Errol Flynn look-alike. After a successful attack against Japanese shipping, the commando group come home heroes. A second mission is planned but this time they are captured by the Japanese, tried as war criminals and beheaded. Now, nearly sixty years on, Grace still has to come to terms with his death.

The story of the men’s fatal mission becomes public legend, but the real truth only slowly comes to light. The mission is pieced together by Grace from a Japanese translator who was present at Leo’s death, a visit from an American seeking absolution for letting Leo and his men down, and from part of a diary Leo wrote on toilet paper when he was captured and was somehow saved. Grace finds herself questioning what their sacrifice was for and why men so willingly adopt the heroic code even above the women they leave behind. At times it is a harrowing story. It explores a bitterness between the Americans, Australians and British. Military and domestic courage are contrasted and in some respects Grace does not play that large a part in it; it is rather the facts she reconstructs.

The only doubt I have in the book is wondering how it was possible to smuggle out a diary written on toilet paper and bring it back to Australia. That said, it was a compelling book and satisfied my need for adventure.