A Review of Haverleigh by James Cumes

 Haverleigh is a well written and engaging story which moves smoothly between the front lines, and the quiet town of Haverleigh, between war at its face, and the impact of war on those left at home. The work is also nicely balanced between the broader historical picture in which it is set, and the intimate lives of the characters whose story makes up the narrative of the book.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Haverleigh
by James Cumes
392 pages 1 edition (April 17, 1998)
Upublish.com; ISBN: 1581128878

“Shortly after dawn on Sunday, the seventh of December, nineteen forty-one, waves of Japanese high-level bombers, torpedo-bombers, dive-bombers and fighters swept out of the sky on to a Pearl Harbour still half-asleep.”

In a small town in south east Queensland, a group of boys on the brink of manhood begin to experiment with sex, love, and responsibility. Their lives, and experiences are fairly common to their era and age, until their youth and freedom is interrupted by the bombing of Pearl Harbour, and its impact on Australia. Conscripted to fight against the Japanese, who had already bombed Darwin, the boys had to suddenly become men, fighting in the jungles of Papua New Guinea along the Kokoda Trail:

From Woolloongabba or wherever, troops were rushed helter-skelter up into northern Australia and New Guinea to try – if only through sheer, half-trained, poorly-armed numbers – to delay the Japs’ headlong rush south.

Haverleigh is a well written and engaging story which moves smoothly between the front lines, and the quiet town of Haverleigh, between war at its face, and the impact of war on those left at home. The work is also nicely balanced between the broader historical picture in which it is set, and the intimate lives of the characters whose story makes up the narrative of the book. The reader ends up with both a large understanding of the war and its impact, and a sympathetic understanding of its specific impact on the lives of the people involved. Haverleigh covers a wide terrain, moving from the Australian bush in the early 40s to life during and after wartime, and a post-war European “coming of age” experience in Paris.

There are many threads within this story, with enough suspense to keep the plot moving, including unwanted (and wanted) pregnancies, murder mysteries, entrepreneuralism, suicide, bravado, heroism, and cynicism. Each thread is woven neatly into the whole, and the reader becomes very involved with the lives of characters like Peter Brent, the youth whose initial loss of virginity is contrasted with his loss of innocence in the jungle, his taste of decadence in Paris, his taste of domesticism in Sydney, and his eventual self-discovery. There is the entrepreneur Jonny Lavers, whose bad leg keeps him from war, but who ends up rich and powerful in Haverleigh. There is David Strang, the artist, whose cynicism contrasts with the ernest Brent, and Tibor and his family, the poor refugees which Peter adopts (and who eventually adopt him). Beyond these main characters, there are a host of minor characters, whose stories serve to further illuminate the setting, time, and place of Haverleigh.

The balance in the narrative is also shown in the perspective of the book. While it is clear that this is an Australian story, through Cumes’ thorough research, we also learn about the Japanese strategy, and even occasionally get inside of the heads of the Japanese soldiers. At one point, towards the end of the novel, one of the Japanese soldiers Tsunekichi Sakama, tracks down his captor, and the man who prevented him from killing himself, James Griffin. Sakama is welcomed in Haverleigh, and the friendship, and gentility between these two soldiers from opposing sides of the war is an inspiring one.

Cumes has written over a dozen books on a wide range of topics, including four novels, and has been involved in many political activities, including Ambassador to the EU, Permanent Representative to the UN and UNIDO, and head of VOW, Victory Over Want. Despite his urbane life, and extensive travels, Haverleigh remains extensively Australian, with a unique and authentic voice. It touches on one of the most important eras of the modern world, and does so in a way which is both personal and powerful: “All we’ve got is handful of brave kids, hungry, buggered and poorly armed”. The Australian effort at Kokoda is well worth revisiting, and Cumes manages to illuminate this effort perfectly, while also presenting a balanced portrait of the Japanese and their own struggles – they are a lot more than just “the enemy” in this novel, as well as the personal struggles of those involved in the war. By the end of the novel, the reader feels like he or she has lived through this period, and also moved from innocence to knowledge. Haverleigh fun, moving and powerful, while retaining its strong sense of place and time.

For more information on Haverleigh or to puchase a copy, visit: Haverleigh

For more information on the author, visit his web site at: http://members.chello.at/schulte-baeuminghaus/default.htm

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