“Death of a Coast Watcher” by Anthony English

Death of a Coast Watcher,  Anthony English (Monsoon, November 2020) Death of a Coast Watcher, Anthony English (Monsoon, November 2020)

When Australian Hugh Rand sailed to New Guinea in 1943 to serve as a coast watcher for the Allied Forces, he knew he would be killed. Rand’s job was to alert the Allies of Japanese activity on the island. He befriended local villagers, but never knew whom he could trust. And as predicted, he was beheaded by the Japanese not long after he arrived. In Death of Coast Watcher by Anthony English, Hugh Rand went on to terrorize generations after him. 

The novel can be described as what one would call an “epic saga”; it takes place in New Guinea, Australia, the Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati), and Japan over four decades. It’s unusual for English novels to take place in these faraway Pacific islands and the setting makes for a good story, especially once centered around a lonely cost watcher.

 

A few minutes before sunset, when mellow light still gleamed into the cell through the tiny eastern window, mosquitoes launched from the roof of thatch to attack Rand in squadrons of buzz and jab, the drill of a mad dentist. Ten or so days ago he relied on loathed mosquitoes to keep him awake and alert. Now he wanted them to inflict mild pain an annoyance to distract him from the mental and physical fruits of torture. This evening the mosquitoes were more frenzied than ever.

 

Rand was a loner and a perfect candidate for a coast watcher; he had no dependents or spouse. After he was executed, his mother was driven to insanity and his father suffered for years after that. And it seemed that everyone who was connected with his case suffered, too.

 

The people and the missionaries were wrong. The nasty spirits of ancestors and places and things were real and there was no escape from them. Jesus and his enemy, Satan, were added to the many hundreds of spirits that lived among us here, not in some other place like heaven or hell. They could punish us now and after we died.

 

Bos Simeon was a teenager in Bougainville, New Guinea, where Rand was posted. Even though she survived the war, her parents did not. Rand killed her father for collaborating with the Japanese, and was indirectly involved in her mother’s death. So Bos had plenty of reason to block out the war. And she was fairly successful until Peter and Charlotte Millar arrived in New Guinea in the early 1970s from Australia. Charlotte was a linguist and learned the local language. But Peter, who was posted to Bougainville as a civil servant, became obsessed with Rand. This obsession started to invade his marriage and his interactions with the villagers. He pestered Bos so much that she started to relive the horrors from the war, even after Peter and Charlotte moved on to the Gilbert Islands.

The last part of the book took place in Tokyo, where Charlotte continued to feel the wrath of Rand’s ghost, even after her marriage fell apart. She inadvertently walked into the studio of Hiroyuki Ayanokoji, a Japanese academic who kept terrible secrets about the war in New Guinea and in northeast China.

 

Throughout the story, English tackles tough questions about war. Is it worse for Japan to ignore its war record or for many of the Allied countries to write fake histories, all while annihilating the people who originally occupied the land? Ayanokoji spoke at length with Charlotte about these blurred boundaries. He wondered how the Japanese could be blamed for conducting ghastly experiments on unsuspecting Chinese residents, while the Americans have never been criticized for the way they handled the discovery of these experiments.

The Americans offered immunity from war crimes prosecution, and promised generous living allowances to these sadists, the same sadists who killed 400 murata after Japan’s surrender.

 

After Charlotte made a harrowing escape from Japan, she finally felt free from Rand’s ghost, the demon that had haunted Peter and broken apart their marriage. She underwent months of therapy guided by a Holocaust survivor and was thought to suffer from a form of schizophrenia. Why else would Charlotte claim to hear Rand’s voice for over a decade, ever since she and Peter first landed in New Guinea?

English blends island folklore into his portrayal of an area torn apart by a war that reached far and wide, including places like New Guinea. The question at the end of the book is whether those who survived will ever cease to be haunted by the war. And how many generations will it take to repair the damage?


Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.