04 June 2020
My Beautiful Enemy is Cory Taylor's latest novel. It spans a period when many Japanese civilians were forced to live and wait out the war in internment camps and describes a part of Australian history that is unfamiliar to many Australians.
Arthur Wheeler is seventeen when he reluctantly joins the army and is stationed as a guard at Tatura, a camp in country Victoria set up to detain civilians from various countries considered a threat to Australia during the Second World War.
The story opens in the autumn of 1945 when Arthur first sets eyes on Stanley Ueno who arrives at the camp's hospital with bruises and scrapes on his body, and very little strength after escaping from a boarding school. Arthur is instantly smitten with the boy he says is “perfect” and this is the beginning of a love affair for him.
Arthur and Stanley are two very different young men. Arthur hides his difficult past and is a nervous man in his army uniform. The focus of his attention and desire is Stanley – charismatic, well dressed, and comfortable with his sexuality. Stanley comes from a family of professional circus performers and takes any opportunity to escape the camp and to make a point he doesn't belong there. Their friendship is sometimes appreciated and sometimes painfully mocking and confusing. It's a relationship that is never smooth and the status of each man in this war – one guarding internees of the camp, the other an “enemy alien” – is never forgotten.
After his initial fear and suspicion of the internees is replaced by his infatuation with Stanley, Arthur starts to work as a teaching aid at the camp's English school. Yet the empathy found in characters like Matron Conlon and the school's teacher McMaster is not something Arthur can understand: “McMaster was like Riley. He had no hard feelings against the Japs at Tatura. He counted some of them as friends. The rest he felt sorry for because he didn't see why they were being punished for a crime they had never committed. He liked to lecture me about the legalities of the case while we marked arithmetic tests, or typed out handouts for English homework.” These characters are a relief from the more nasty characters like Arthur's father, constantly at odds with Arthur's sense of himself.
Arthur is unable to come to terms with his sexuality, and only the physical acts of passion reveal his true feelings. Despite his strong desire for Stanley he marries his “girl” May, someone who believes he is not a lost cause. Despite being a young man with raw sexual desires and longing for a secret love, there is nothing he can give to May – and she becomes the first casualty of his life after Tatura. In his memory it is a life that doesn't live up to his dreams:
“Half a lifetime later Stanley would tell me, with a kindly smile, that I imagined he was someone he wasn't. He seemed to be suggesting that I'd misunderstood his actions and exaggerated their significance.
'I never think about the past,' he said in his matinee-idol voice. 'It's over and done with.'
I confessed that for me it was different, and that I dwelled in the past more and more. I told Stanley that for some years now, I'd felt as if my life had ended when I'd left Tatura, and that everything after that had been a posthumous life.”
It can be challenging at times to appreciate Arthur's experience of the camp as it relates to him when the experience of the internees around him is of desperation and despair, and why Stanley would prefer not to dwell on the past. What made me enjoy this book was the dialogue between Arthur and the other characters, and Taylor's skill as a scriptwriter possibly has something to do with this.
There is a real sense of what daily life was like for the families of the Tatura camp. Clearly the author has done her historical research in this work of fiction which was partly inspired by her friend historian Yuriko Nagata. It is set in a period when nationality was a divisive issue, when the White Australia Policy was still official and racism was unquestioned. And also when men used their might to prove a point and heavy drinking and smoking was a normal part of life.
This is a novel that doesn't hide personal pain and loss and also reveals the beauty that comes from lasting memories and a desire for love. For any reader who is left wondering what became of the camps and its internees, the subject of Victorian internment camps are part of an exhibition, The Enemy Within, at the Shrine of Remembrance until July 28.
Reviewed by Phuong Dang