At a writing workshop I attended two years ago, Emma Thompson quoted the filmmaker Jim Sheridan on telling a compelling story: “Always have a magnet at the end of the story that draws the reader or viewer to the end. The pull of the magnet should be felt from the very first scene.”
This is a very good maxim to use as a guideline in writing stories of any kind. Unfortunately Bryce Courtenay’s Fishing for Stars takes 200 pages to reveal a magnet with any real power of attraction. This is far too long a time to set up an inciting incident. I found it very difficult to maintain interest during the first 200 pages.
The event that eventually piqued my interest takes place on p 202 of this 600-page novel. Anna, one of the two women who have dominated the life of Courtenay’s lead character, Nicholas Duncan, is abducted in Japan by her former war-time captor, Konoe Akira.
I am sorry to say that the opening pages of this novel ramble quite loosely around events in the life of Nicholas Duncan.
Duncan, who lives in the South Pacific Island of Vanuatu, has made his extensive fortune through inter-island shipping, using the confusion after the Second World War as a stepping stone to capitalise on trade in the area. We learn from the first pages that Duncan’s life has been dominated by two women whom he has loved equally for very different reasons: Marg Hamilton and Anna Til.
Marg is older than Nicholas Duncan by eight years. He met her when he was just eighteen and Marg was a WRAN in Naval Intellligence in Fremantle. Duncan had escaped on a ship sailing away from the Japanese invasion of Java, which he’d missed by a matter of hours. Marg was one of the intelligence officers who had questioned him on his arrival in Fremantle. She gave him more than questions, however, when she stripped him of his virginity shortly after meeting him.
By the time Duncan leaves Fremantle to join the Navy in Melbourne months later, he is deeply in love with the beautiful Marg. Of course it doesn’t take Marg long to become engaged to another naval officer. Duncan is devastated by the news, which he receives in a letter.
But his thoughts return to Anna, whom he’d met in Java just before the Japanese invasion.
The exquisite Anna was sixteen when she and her Dutch father tried to escape the invasion along with the rest of the fleeing community. Duncan saw her and her family off at the quayside in Batavia. He eventually assumed their ship didn’t make it across the high seas, when news came that the Japanese had bombed and sunk most of the escaping vessels, whether they carried civilians or soldiers.
When he meets up with Anna again in Melbourne five years after the war, he finds her a very different woman. In fact, Anna’s ship had not made it out of Java in their bid to escape. Their vessel had been wrecked on the Javanese south coast, where she’d been captured by the invaders.
The Japanese commanding officer of the region, Konoe Akira, took the beautiful sixteen-year-old as his personal consort. He lovingly trained Anna in the ancient Japanese art of sexual bondage, kinbaku. To ensure his hold over her he also made her dependent on heroin. Because of her youth and her newly-formed addiction, Anna became enthralled by him. She took every word of his to heart, especially his advice about her virginity. He impressed upon Anna that she must protect her virginity just as a persimmon tree protects its seeds. He convinced her that without her virtue, represented by her physical virginity, she was worthless.
When Duncan and Anna meet up again in Melbourne years later, Anna is no longer the sweet young girl he’d remembered. She is the madam of a high-class Japanese-styled house of kinbaku. Now fluent in the language of sexual bondage, Anna trains women to perform the art she learnt from Konoe Akira. She handles her heroin addiction as discreetly as her profession and only a few know of its existence.
Duncan doesn’t find Anna’s choice of career an impediment to their love, however. In fact, they become even closer. Using her intimate connections of powerful businessmen across the Pacific Islands and Australia, the two of them soon amass a fortune.
But there is still one thing Duncan wants more than any other: he wants to possess Anna body and soul. Konoe Akira’s lessons to Anna have held firm. She is unable to have penetrative sex and this causes Duncan much distress. She eventually sees a doctor and is told she has a condition called vaginismus which causes her to seize up physically before penetrative sex. She promises to try and work on the problem, but Duncan finds himself still physically frustrated.
When an opportunity presents itself for a trip to Japan, Duncan leaps at it. He asks Anna if she will accompany him, and she agrees with alacrity. Both of them secretly hope that Anna will find Konoe Akira and lay to rest the fear of intimacy he has instilled in her.
When Anna goes off to a known house of kinbaku in Japan to top up her supply of heroin and to seek out her mentor, she disappears. It is at this point that Duncan has to call on the services of his newly acquired friends, the yakuza – the Japanese mafia.
It is only through this event that the story takes on some momentum. Perhaps Courtenay expects his readers to be as fascinated as he is with Anna’s inability to have penetrative sex up until this point. It wasn't enough to sustain my interest, however. But perhaps this is my fault. I have grown used to reading and writing screenplays where every superfluous word is cut. I get annoyed by prose without a point.
Courtenay’s novel is a memoir of his ageing protagonist Nicholas Duncan’s life. I am sure it will appeal to those who have lived through the war and will enjoy reading minutiae about a battle or two as well as the post-war trading system in the South Pacific. Perhaps they also won’t mind going on a winding journey of one man’s memories of two women he loved.
I’m very sorry to say that I was disappointed by the rambling nature of Bryce Courtenay’s latest novel, especially as he is such a respected novelist. The Power of One will always remain a classic, but I suppose not even Couretnay can write a masterpiece every time.