Book Review by Robert E Glass
Caroline Preston, This Tumult, Dublin, The Lilliput Press, 2017.
This Tumult is an apt title for this novel. Tumultuous change/s in the lives and circumstances of the family at its centre, the Tottenhams of County Westmeath, and their individual reactions to that change, is/are the novel’s central subject. In her author’s note preceding the title page, Caroline Preston notes that, while the novel is based on the true story of that family during World War Two, she has had to imagine (my emphasis) how they coped with what befell them and how they battled with separation, fear and deprivation. And, she adds, ‘The people they encountered and who helped them survive are also entirely fictional’.
The two central characters whose shared and individual stories provide much of its structural dynamic, are the brothers Nick and Tony Tottenham. The story begins on 20 May 1938, Nick’s sixteenth birthday, the day after British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin’s infamous ‘Peace in our Time’ speech, reflecting his serious misunderstanding of German Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s intentions. Nick announces to his sister Kate his intention to leave the family farm in Westmeath to go to Australia, thus escaping his parents’, especially his father’s, intense criticism, and their personally crushing expectation that he would
make his future … farming in Westmeath and a life tied to mounting debts while watching his parents routinely dulling the pain of their disappointment with whiskey.
Surprisingly to Nick, after what seems to him an interminable time, his parents, Gerald and Eleanor, agree that he should go, along with his younger brother Tony, because ‘A year or two away will do you both good’. Moreover, mindful of the possibility of disruption to shipping, should the situation with Germany ‘not settle down’, as his father puts it, ‘you should get going fairly soon’.
Nick and Tony depart Southampton on 17 March 1939. The intention is that they will work for their uncle Herbert, Gerald’s brother, on his property Twin Oaks, near Balmoral, 70 kilometres south-west of Horsham in Western Victoria. On the boat to Australia, Nick becomes friends with Zach (Zachariah Schmitz) the most important of the ‘fictional’ characters in the novel. Zach is the son of a Jewish doctor who has been sent to the Dachau concentration camp ‘on a train … a cattle truck’ by the Nazis. Zach’s mother, also under Nazi detention, has organised, with the support of the British-German Aid Society, for him to be sent to England on the Kindertransport. Almost immediately Zach disrupts Nick’s limited view of the world, describing to him traditional Jewish customs (Shabbes), and food – Gefilte fish, krupnik and Sachertorte – but more importantly informing him in some detail of the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews:
Last November all our homes were broken into, the shops smashed, and they…the SS, beat people with sledge hammers. They burnt our synagogues. They dug the graves in our cemeteries. My father was arrested but he did not know why.
Nick and Zach, almost by accident, meet up at a ‘Sheepvention’, where a newspaper reports Germany’s invasion of Poland. Zach is committed to returning to Europe to fight the Germans, and asks Nick to come with him.
As Zach’s words crashed through Nick’s mind the thought that he might wave a flag at a departing troop ship, one with Zach on board, tipped him… He would go.
His brother Tony declares, ‘I’ll be right behind you’.
In time, five other members of the Tottenham family find their way into war service. Gerald ‘fiddles the system’ (changes his birth certificate) and secures a commission in the Royal Norfolks and is sent to Malaya, because he speaks Malay. Eleanor secures a similar position in the WAAF, allowing her to make use of her ability in mathematics to assist in the planning of aircraft sorties. Rose goes with her, as does Kate as a radar mechanic. Tony, having been first rejected as a potential trainee pilot because of his youth, studies mathematics himself in Australia, and manages to convince a doubting recruitment officer that his short stature will not be a handicap. He eventually becomes commander of an Avro Lancaster, the most famous and successful RAF heavy bomber of World War Two, on which many Australians were crew, in the process becoming legends themselves.*
When I met Caroline Preston by chance in Dublin this year, she insisted that This Tumult was a novel. The book’s success, however, depends significantly on the accuracy of her portrayal of the grim reality of what the individuals experience in their varying engagements in the war. Noteworthy in this respect are descriptions of Nick and Zach’s treatment as prisoners-of-war, firstly by the Vichy French in Syria, and later by the Japanese in Java and Changi.
That Preston’s description of the behaviour of the Japanese in Java is accurate is confirmed by Weary Dunlop’s war diaries (1986) (Dunlop is on the same boat that brings Nick and Zach to Java), and several books (for example, Peter Brune’s Descent into Hell, 2014) attest that the same applies to her treatment of the Japanese behaviour in Changi. Similarly, Preston does not minimise the tensions and challenges of Eleanor’s work, or the conditions under which Tony and his crew worked in the Lancaster.
What makes this book really engaging is the way the author integrates these unglossed descriptions of the realities of war with her imaginative reconstructions of how people dealt with that experience. It starts at the beginning. ‘It is hard saying goodbye’ says Tony as he and Nick sail out of Dun Laoghaire. Next the family has to cope with learning that Nick is a POW in Syria, leaving Kate to ‘hold her breath’ for a long time. Kate wonders whether ‘any of them who had gone away ever think about the ones left at home’. Kate and her mother share their anguish about Nick’s second stint as a POW. Nick and Zach are frustrated by the time it takes to get into the action, as is Tony. He is confident about the qualities of the Lancaster, but his mother, based on her own experience, has serious reservations. Her forebodings are realised when Tony, having received a DFC for his efforts in France and Germany signs up for another mission which proves fatal.
In this context, the interaction between Nick and Zach throughout is special: Zach plays a critical role in nursing Nick back to health after the latter is bashed up when intervening to challenge how Zach has been treated in Katani. Later the roles are reversed after Zach is fatally attacked in Java.
This is a book that works at many levels. The complexity of all of the main characters is allowed to emerge gradually: Gerald, for example, at the start of the novel is portrayed as hard and uncaring, especially towards Nick, and addicted to whiskey, probably because of his own experience in the First World War. Throughout the work, however, he contributes many useful insights and eventually comes to Nick’s aid in Changi.
This is an excellent book, one of the best I have read this year. The Epilogue (September 1984), and the Postscript (September 2014), 40 years and 70 years respectively after Tony’s death, are profoundly moving.
*The qualities of the Lancaster are described in two books by Mike Garbett and Brian Golding: The Lancaster at War (1971) and The Lancaster at War 2 (1979). For crew members, see Peter Rees, The Aussie Heroes of Bomber Command (2013).
Bob Glass has training in economics and history and has written many reviews for Tinteán