Sometimes we have a tendency to forget the breadth of talented writers we have in Australia. Take Fairfax columnist Mark Dapin for example, who is one of the country's most recognisable and consistently funny journalists. Those who enjoy his column's stylistic footnote-heavy quirks will have flocked to his unconventional first novel King of the Cross which rightly won 2010's Ned Kelly First Fiction Award. In it, a cadet reporter from the Australian Jewish Times interviews Jake Mendoza, legendary Sydney crime lord. The resulting memoir is a sly wink to real world gangland figures.
Mendoza pops up again as an enigmatic bit player in Dapin's second novel Spirit House which is frankly just wonderful. Why? It's funny, truthful, upsetting, moving and sheds a whole new light on an aspect of Australian war history that I thought had been amply covered a hundred times already, namely Changi prison in Singapore and the construction of the Thai Burmese railway by Allied prisoners.
Dapin's protagonist is Jimmy Rubens, a 70 year-old Jewish veteran living in 1990 Bondi. Jimmy's 13 year-old grandson David, who loves war stories, is staying with his grandparents after an acrimonious split between his parents. His mother has packed him off so she can spend some time with her new lover, which suits David to a degree as he gets to pick his grandfather's brain. Jimmy is the definition of surly and has been having a hard time dealing with his memories of fallen comrades. He takes David under his wing as a confidant, a kind of free therapist if you like, and so a harrowing tale unfolds.
This all sounds very serious but Dapin has shrewdly steered the book away from misery memoir territory. The scenes in Changi and Thailand are amazing when they come, desperately sad and frustrating but also imbued with a sense of the Australian soldiers as whip-smart, tough as nails, irreverent men making the best of a nightmare situation. Their use of humour as a coping mechanism makes for thrilling reading. Jimmy's best friends are Townsville Jack, a defiant man of mystery and Katz, a war artist.
They do whatever it takes to survive, organising frog races as lucrative morale boosters and drawing sex pictures for the Japanese guards in exchange for eggs. As the years roll by and their penury seems never ending, they are forced to watch men die from starvation, disease and violence whilst twitchy officers hang on to misguided military discipline in the midst of chaos. They joined up to fight and spent the war in a hellhole prison.
If Spirit House was just about Jimmy relating war tales to his grandson, it would be bleak stuff indeed. Fortunately Dapin gives the modern passages real life, as Jimmy drags David to the RSL where he drinks with three other Jewish veterans Solly, Myer and his old friend Katz. The banter between these old war dogs is unbelievable. The zingers just keep coming as they tear sarcastic strips off each other. It's the funniest book I've read in a long time, which, given the serious nature of the appalling conditions in Changi and on the railway, is a little odd. But it works. We need the humour as much as they seem to. It's what keeps these men from losing their minds, although Jimmy is well on the way. He's building a spirit house in the yard, after all, to house the ghosts that plague him. Initially bemused, the local community comes around to his project as Dapin leads us to a transcendent ending. There'll be a few reviewers singing Mark Dapin's praises over this one and I'm very happy to be one of them, for this is a beautiful, hilarious, frightening novel that has leapt straight into my top three for 2011.