Falling in Love with WW2 Novels
NOTE: I realize this is exceptionally long for a blog entry - they will not all be anywhere near this long, I promise!
It was the summer before my senior year in high school, and I was working in a Waldenbooks in a local mall. So 1980s! I might have been wearing my favorite lilac Polo shirt and Guess jeans, but then again, that’s probably authorial license given the passage of time. The truth is I don’t remember what I was wearing, but I distinctly recall that while unpacking new hardback books for a display, I was immediately drawn to the cover of Noel Barber’s A Farewell to France. Waldenbooks allowed employees to borrow books, so long as they were returned in “saleable condition” (I doubt consumers would have been too excited to know this).
After devouring this novel over the course of a weekend, I realized several things. One, I would not be returning this book, but would instead pony up a hefty amount of one of my paychecks to pay for it (quite probably the first hardback book I ever bought). Two, I needed to find more books by this author. Three, somewhere inside me welled up an unexpressed desire to read more fiction like this, a desire that is now reshaping itself into a need to write novels set in the dramatic years of WWII.
So, acting on my second thought above (finding more books by this author), I searched the shelves, and miraculously, my store in fact had a single copy of Barber’s first novel. Unbeknownst to me, this novel was already difficult to find and had been released two years prior: Tanamera.
So while Tanamera wasn’t the first Noel Barber novel I read, it was my favorite. With the hindsight of decades, I can say that it significantly influenced my reading and writing in many ways. I decided an exploration of why this book has so captivated me for the decades that have passed since Irene Cara’s “Flashdance” was the Number 1 song in America was the perfect topic for my first blog.
I don’t indulge in re-reading novels too often (which begs the question why I’ve devoted such a sizeable portion of my residential living space to physical books!). Yet, I’m reasonably confident that I’ve re-read Tanamera more times than any other novel (Except Harry Potter. Because . . . Harry Potter!).
I also own 8 different copies of Tanamera. Why so many copies of this novel? Well, this will be a familiar train of thought for any bibliophile --- if something happened to my beloved first copy, I needed a backup. It was, OMG!, out of print by sometime in the late 1980s when I happily finally located my second copy in a musty old bookstore on Charing Cross Road in London. Since then, I’ve always purchased any other copy I came across in used bookstores, hence my collection of 8 copies.
So, what’s so special about Tanamera? The 1981 Kirkus review was lackluster at best, terming it not particularly dramatic or original. If you’ve read any of the recent reviews on amazon or goodreads (Barber’s books were apparently re-released as ebooks after years of being out of print), you might wonder why this particular novel holds such appeal to me when other readers have criticized Barber for being racist, homophobic, xenophobic, elitist and even misogynistic. Knowing I wanted to explore this in my first blog, it was the perfect excuse to pull the book out and re-read it yet again.
Breathing in the slightly dusty “old” smell of my original paperback edition (yes, the one whose potential loss led me to buy 7 other copies), I began to re-read with some trepidation. It has been awhile since I last re-read it, and now a writer myself, I knew I’d be reading with a more critical eye.
My initial impression is that Barber wouldn’t fare too well in today’s market. His information dumps in the first 100 pages are mammoth. I’m not convinced he started the story in the right place or needs anywhere near all the backstory that he indulges in. Because he spent decades as a journalist and wrote numerous works of non-fiction before turning to fiction, he also falls prey to including far more historical backstory than might be wise. Pacing in the first 250 pages is slower than many modern readers will withstand.
His use of foreshadowing is very clunky and often jars the reader out of the narrative. Because he employs first-person POV, readers don’t connect as fully on an emotional level with the other characters, notably Julie, the heroine. In today’s market, his editor would surely encourage Barber to rewrite in third person and alternate POV between Johnnie and Julie, to make both of them more complex and illuminate their flaws more fully.
But despite these technical and stylistic flaws, I think Tanamera holds up very well. Some of the recent reviews have criticized Barber for elitism, racism, misyogny and homophobia. No, this novel is not politically correct by today’s standards, but can we really hold older books to current standards? The authorial voice and that of the protagonist ring true for the historical context. I would find it more jarring if Johnnie had held views far ahead of his time on all these levels. He was already a bit out-of-step with the social mores of his class and position in Singapore society simply by virtue of having counted Paul Soong as his best friend, even before he fell in love with Paul’s sister Julie.
Even in 1981 (especially considering the author was born in 1909 and was therefore of Johnnie Dexter’s era), it would have been considered odd for Johnnie to have views we might expect from a hero in a current contemporary romance. So while I don’t imagine I would have agreed with Barber’s worldview or political opinions if I’d met him, I don’t think it’s fair to hold him (or Johnnie) to current standards. Further, though it’s never confirmed one way or another, Robin Chalfont may well have been homosexual, but after serving under him for years, Johnnie respects and loves Chalfont, would follow him anywhere in fact.
I can completely agree with the criticism that Julie is too perfect. She has no flaws, complexity or evident conflicts beyond the stated cultural constraints. However, much of this is possibly attributable to the novel being written from Johnnie’s first-person POV. Tanamera is Johnnie Dexter’s journey.
I’m also not certain that Barber intended his books to be shelved as romances (more likely he would have thought himself writing straight historical fiction with strong romantic elements). A modern reader, especially a romance reader, does expect the heroine to be more engaging than Julie is. I think readers are rooting for Johnnie and Julie, but probably more because Johnnie so desperately wants to marry Julie than because the reader is emotionally invested in Julie’s desires. Barber resorts primarily to telling readers what they should love about Julie, a tactic that falls flat for a modern reader.
Johnnie, on the other hand – tall, blonde, athletic, charming and intelligent (everything the perfect Hero is in my mind in other words) – is a vibrant well-rounded character. His flaws are fully exposed, and he pays dearly for them, as any Hero so often does.
Interestingly, Barber does invest his other female characters with considerably more spunk and depth than his heroine. Johnnie’s older sister Natasha, his “friends with benefits” lover Vicky Scott, his first wife Irene and to a lesser extent his mother and Julie’s mother Sonia are all fully realized characters with goals, motivations and conflicts.
Unfortunately, some of the other key players get less development than I might have liked. I recall Grandpa Jack being “larger than life,” but on this last reading, I wasn’t as drawn in. I also had conflicted feelings about the character arc for Papa Jack and Mama. They have the kneejerk reaction against Johnnie and Julie’s love affair that one might expect and rally round Johnnie in support of his proper marriage to Irene in London. While I can buy that living out the war years in London had a profound effect on Johnnie’s parents, I would have liked a more nuanced look at how this and Johnnie’s renewed relationship with Julie changed or affected his relationship with both parents. The final argument with Papa Jack seemed too pat and predictable and left Papa Jack as too much the “feeble old man” who is unwilling to embrace changing times.
As for the “bad guys,” Soong Kai-Shek is a caricature villain in every sense, but I thought Barber was particularly skillful in creating the believable complexity of Ah Tin and his relationship with Johnnie.
Barber also does an excellent job of keeping the reader turning pages (chasing his characters up a tree and throwing rocks at them), even in the more sedate beginning third of the story. By the time the war breaks out, Barber hits his stride more fully. The account of the final days before the Japanese occupied Singapore is riveting, packed with action. If he’d written in alternating third person, he wouldn’t have needed to resort to a later flashback to convey Julie’s harrowing escape experience. Further, he would have been showing the reader actively what happened to her once she boarded the ship, rather than telling us through Tony Scott’s voice.
I’ve always been fascinated by the exploits of the OSS, SOE and other special forces operating behind enemy lines and while some reviewers have scoffed that these sections ring of an overdose of James Bond, I suspect Barber, a hard-hitting journalist, likely isn’t embellishing too wildly. Without giving away too much, the high drama of the final forty pages demands to be read in one sitting.
Yes, a good bit of my own attachment to this novel is probably nostalgia. It is, and likely always will be, the literary equivalent of comfort food for me. Even with this recent more critical re-read, Tanamera still measures up on my overall satisfaction scale. Yes, it’s more flawed in a technical sense than I remembered. Yes, Julie herself is disappointingly flat for a “heroine.” Yes, if I were having dinner with Noel Barber today, I’d likely find myself disappointed with his outdated colonialist and conservative viewpoints. But the novel itself is still a rollicking good read, Johnnie Dexter is still hot (and an admirable and worthy, if flawed, Hero), and the rich historical details bring Singapore of 1934-1948 to life. Fans of WWII-era fiction will find much to appreciate in this novel, particularly if they are also romance readers.
I'm the author of historical romances set during WWII.