The great Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti summed up the internal tug-of-war suffered by Christine Piper’s protagonist in her debut novel, After Darkness.
‘I wonder why we divide life into fragments, the business life, social life, family life, religious life, the life of sports and so on? I think we ought to … find out if there is a way of life in which there is no division at all between living and dying.’
It is a smart and melancholy story, a series of missed opportunities and relentless weakness. The story is narrated by Japanese doctor, Tomakazu Ibaraki. When Japan enters World War 2, he is working in a hospital in the small pearling town of Broome, Western Australia. Like hundreds of other Japanese, Italian and German residents of Australia, he is arrested as an alien and interned in a remote prison camp.
Whilst Dr Ibaraki has fled to Australia to escape the horrors of Japan’s research into germ warfare, he realises that it’s the struggle within himself that he needs to conquer.
Dr Ibaraki manifests hubris in his inherent inability to separate his loyalty and discretion in his business life from that of his other lives. A work of historical fiction, Piper has effectively tapped into the abstract Japanese social concept of ‘saving face’. Her main protagonist presents as a highly intelligent, yet fundamentally flawed character, placing honour, reputation and dignity above all other elements. His marriage, friendships and the one thing he (mistakenly) places the utmost importance upon, his career, all suffer under the weight of his inability to apply objective reasoning.
Piper teaches us a lesson with her debut novel: there’s always an untold story. In a clever fusion of fact and fiction, Piper succeeds in giving names, faces and stories to those who were effectively forgotten.
Piper’s extensive research into Japan’s shocking germ warfare program (her paper on the topic earned her the Calibre Prize for an outstanding essay) gives validity, urgency and credibility to a story that is at its core, centred on the importance of truly living whilst alive. Through a constant sequence of flashbacks, the reader comes to understand how Ibaraki has become an absent figure in his own life.
Christine Piper is the 2014 recipient of The Australian Vogel Prize, an award for an unpublished manuscript by a writer under the age of 35.
Rachel Freeman is a Primary School teacher, Literacy tutor and writer living on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.