History personalised by an all-consumed author.
Feature image credit: Penguin Books Australia
Back to Bangka is written in two parts, structured in a way that truly reflects how wars unfold — what is the truth, whose story is it, and who’s place is it to tell a story? The first part is the story you hear.
This novel is very much about author Georgina Banks’ great-aunt Dorothy Elmes, or Bud, as per the family nickname. However, it is just as much a dedication to all those massacred on Radji Beach in the Bangka Strait of Indonesia in 1942 during the Second World War.
The story starts with the plight of the nurses that were on board the sunken ship, the Vyner Brooke. Using powerfully descriptive text, Banks takes the reader through the entire experience, through Bud’s eyes. One can feel the ship sinking, the survivors gathering, and the group deciding what to do. Throughout the reveal of this historical event are letters to the family from Bud and how Bud came to be a nurse in the army.
In the second part of the book, which is of nearly equal length, the narrative shifts to the present time and delves into Banks’ extensive research, emotions, and discoveries as she takes on the task of publishing the book. Regrettably, this section seemed to include an abundance of unnecessary details that didn’t add to the storyline, ultimately distracting me from what is a significant part of history.
In this second part, it felt the writing style was somewhat frenetic. The story moved from one thing to the other and I felt distracted by this back and forth; it disconnected me from the experience of those massacred. Whether the lack of calmness was to demonstrate to the reader the turmoil Banks felt inside upon her discovery that the story told was not the whole truth, it felt disrupting to me. Perhaps it would have worked better for me as an audiobook.
Instead of focusing on the tragedy, I began to think. Is the author’s purpose a search for truth or a desire for justice? How do you cope when the truth is not the truth? Is an omission a lie or protection for the deceased and their loved ones? At some point in this second part, I began to wonder why the author became so fixated on certain aspects of the Bangka massacre. As if reading my mind, to her credit, she addresses this in the second part of the book.
Overall, this is a book worth reading. I admit I had never heard of this tragedy until I read this novel. I really valued the skilfulness of Banks as she parallels the silence of the official story to the silence within her own family. She imbues authenticity into her narrative by showing how her family ties similarly affected her ability to uncover the truth. It’s a powerful way to deliver a story that will particularly appeal to those in comparable circumstances.
Reviewed by Rebecca Wu
The views expressed in this review belong to the author and not Glam Adelaide, its affiliates, or employees.
Distributed by: Penguin Books Australia
Released: June 2023