Review: Shame and the Captives by Tom Keneally


Title: Shame and the Captives

Author: Tom Keneally

Published: Random House Australia November 2013

Read an Excerpt

Status: Read from October 30 to November 01, 2013 — I own a copy {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

I was eager to read Shame and the Captives, not only because I haven’t read anything by Keneally since highschool, which seemed remiss of me given his status in Australian literature, but primarly because I was particularly intrigued by the premise.

It was only a few months ago I learned (thanks to Hannah and Emil) that during World War 2 Australia interred thousands of residents of ‘enemy blood’ . For some reason, I didn’t consider that Australia would also have hosted Prisoners of War, largely I suppose because of the relative distances between the main fighting fronts and our country, excepting the attempted Japanese incursions in the north.

The story of Shame and The Captives closely follows the events of the Cowra Breakout in 1944. Camp B of No. 12 Prisoner of War Compound (Cowra) was the scene of a bloody skirmish when many of the 1,104 Japanese prisoners of war tuned on their captors and attempted to escape. While Keneally clearly states in a foreword titled “Where the Tale Comes From” that the Shame and The Captives is, “a parallel account, or a tale provoked by the events that unfolded in Cowra” and further that his characters “are not designed to reflect any virtues, sins, follies, fevers and acts of courage evident in any of the real actors in the Cowra outbreak”, this novel is a blend of fact and fiction.

Keneally’s representation of the events and the people involved may be fictional but it seems an entirely plausible account, with the histories, personalities and motives the author ascribes to the characters seemingly authentic in light of what we know of history. Delving not only into the lives of the men in the camp, the Japanese prisoners like Tengan and Aoki, the camp commander, Colonel Abercare and his subordinate Suttor, Shame and the Captives extends beyond the camps boundaries into the community, represented primarily by Alice and her father-in-law Duncan.

Exploring the themes of shame, honour, belief, loyalty, cultural disparity, compassion and respect, Keneally provides context for the Cowra Breakout and Australian society in the period of war.

One of the interesting ideas Keneally explores is Australia’s trust that if they treated their prisoners with care (according to the Geneva Convention), their soldiers in the custody of enemy nations would be treated with equal fairness. Suttor and Alice, whose respective son and husband are POW’s, cling to this ideal. Unfortunately the Japanese mostly despised the Australians for their compassion, since their honour code insisted that death was preferable to imprisonment. The Breakout then, was essentially a mass suicide attempt, a means for the Japanese to die with the honour their beliefs demanded of them.

While I was utterly fascinated by the story of the Shame and The Captives, unfortunately I found the writing, with very little dialogue, often dry and dispassionate. I was in some ways reminded of a school history lesson worksheet where an attempt is made to enliven the learning of facts by couching them in a story. Had I not been so intrigued by this period of history, Keneally’s prose may have resulted me in abandoning it.

Nevertheless, I consider Shame and the Captives to be a compelling and thought provoking novel, one I particularly would recommend to Australians interested in our country’s history.

Available to Purchase From

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via Booko



9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Pris Gormley
    Nov 05, 2013 @ 13:13:48

    I haven’t yet read Shame and the Captives, but Tom Keneally’s last book before that was an absorbing account of two Australian nurses who enlisted as army nurses in WWI. It was so good that, having read it from the library, I bought a copy to reread and own. I’m very surprised that you found Shame and the Captives written in a dry and dispassionate way, as Daughters of Mars was so intimately involved in the feelings of the two sisters. Now I’m very intrigued and will read it as soon as I can get my hands on a copy. I’ve been looking forward to it as I loved the preceding novel so much. Please would you read Daughters of Mars and tell us what you think of the two books in comparison?



  2. Jennie
    Nov 06, 2013 @ 14:10:02

    I’ve been seeing this book everywhere. It’s not my usual sort of read although lately I’ve been reading more history couched in fiction and enjoying learning new information. Recently I read The Narrow Road to the Deep North which highlighted the honour code of the Japanese re death being honorable above imprisonment. It was, as this one sounds, like an interesting perspective. Great review Shelleyrae



  3. herschelian
    Nov 06, 2013 @ 20:36:49

    Am really looking forward to reading this. Until 3 yrs ago I had only read one of Keneally’s books – Shindler’s Ark. Then he came here to Beijing to be one of the guest speakers at the annual Beijing Bookworm Literary Festival. He was a wonderful speaker,witty, charming and very thought provoking. Not at all the type of man I had expected – made me think of a little Australian leprechaun! It was a real priviledge to meet and talk with him. I am a South African and so we discussed racism in South Africa compared with racism in Australia.

    BTW – Shelleyrae I must thank you for your blog. It is a fantastic resource for introducing me to books and authors from down-under, and as a result I have had hours of happy reading.



  4. Brona
    Nov 07, 2013 @ 08:33:41

    I had a similar problem with this book Shelley.
    I spent most of my highschool years in Cowra, and therefore know the real story quite intimately. I found it very hard to engage with this version of events and the writing left me cold.
    Which was disappointing because I LOVED Daughters of Mars (I have reviews of both if you wanted to check them out some time.)

    Would you like to add this review to my AusReading Month linky?
    This is the master post with link…



  5. Lesdeemac
    Nov 11, 2013 @ 17:53:10

    I look forward to reading this book too. I once visited the Cowra Cemetery and read all about the events of the breakout. I did start reading one of Keneally’s books years ago, and found it rather dry. I think it was The Devils Playground, however it put me off and I haven’t read anymore since. I might have to give Daughters of Mars a go too, now that I’ve read good reports of it.



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