It’s a cracking page-turner of a read.
Historical fiction is a tremendously demanding genre, involving overlaying a compelling imagined narrative on real historic events in such a way the fictional seems as truthful as the actual history it’s intertwined with.
The war at the top end of Australia is detailed as it has rarely been, involving the very real history of 18th Squadron (NEI) RAAF, a combined Dutch/Royal Australian Air Force squadron formed on 4 April 1942 by Dutch East Indies escapees fleeing the Japanese, with Australian crews. If you thought Australia suffered one attack on Darwin by the Japanese, think gain. If you thought the top end never saw sustained enemy attack or surveillance, think again. A Dutch crew had Australia’s back.
Events, places and personages are real, with two exceptions: Tom and Bob Derks were characters created by author Marianne Van Velzen, honouring wishes of three former members of 18th Squadron who didn’t want their names connected to places and events they were involved in during World War II.
It’s easy to get caught up in Van Velzen’s superb, gripping deployment of narrative drama, real romance through the eyes of her fictional characters, and deft character studies of real airmen. Her style is totally confident, supremely seductive in a ‘light reading’ manner without being frivolous or trivial, given the matters of history being dealt with were serious ones on a deeply national and personal level.
Van Velzen’s created characters link numerous stories and events into a clear, compelling narrative otherwise not possible given the necessity of honouring the wishes of her interview subjects.
Given the paucity in the Netherlands and Australia of public or widely-available published works on this unique squadron – beyond self-published texts, archival works and Van Zelzen’s interviews with surviving members – Bomber Boys is a significant testament to forgotten history.
Drink it in. We all should.
Reviewed by David O’Brien
Rating out of 10: 10
Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Release Date: May 2017
RRP: $29.99 paperback