China, 1941. With Japan’s declaration of war on the Allies, Elspeth Kent’s future changes forever. When soldiers take control of the missionary school where she teaches, comfortable security is replaced by rationing, uncertainty and fear.
Ten-year-old Nancy Plummer has always felt safe at Chefoo School. Now the enemy, separated indefinitely from anxious parents, the children must turn to their teachers – to Miss Kent and her new Girl Guide patrol especially – for help. But worse is to come when the pupils and teachers are sent to a distant internment camp. Unimaginable hardship, impossible choices and danger lie ahead. Inspired by true events, this is the unforgettable story of the life-changing bonds formed between a young girl and her teacher, in a remote corner of a terrible war.
Its always interesting to see what an author will do with a novel based on true events and characters. Of course you never know how true to events they maybe and what artistic licence the author will take, but to me that didnt matter, what I wanted was a good story with characters that I could connect with and I wasn’t disappointed.
The premise of a boarding school in China for children of diplomats, missionaries and business people was not something I had necessarily associated with World War II. The invasion by the Japanese and their subsequent imprisonment proved mesmerising, sad, but also humbling, as Gaynor used the voices of Nancy, one of the students and her teacher Elspeth to relate a wonderful story.
Most novels concentrate on the barbaric aspect of war time internment, and yes, Gaynor touched on this, the rape of women, the reprisals for those that disobeyed but what was refreshing was the more human angle she took, the techniques and sheer guts and determination Nancy and Elspeth used to stay alive and maintain some sense of optimism
You couldn’t help but feel huge empathy for Nancy, separated from her mother, the prospect of many more months, years with no contact, but Gaynor didn’t drown her in self pity. From somewhere deep inside she gave her a deep resolve and an inner strength that forced her to get out of bed each day and make the most of what she had. Her friendships, particularly with Dorothy and Mouse were endearing, and the indomitable Mrs T provided sparks of joy in what could have been a very bleak narrative. Indeed Mrs T was one of my favourite characters, her subversive actions under the guise of a library showed the bravery and risks many took to make life just that little bit more bearable.
Elsbeth, their teacher, was in fact the heroine of the novel, the onset of war an obstacle that prevented her flight back to England. Gaynor showed us a woman who had immeasurable energy, strength and resolve. Her selflessness, her need to protect her students as she gave them structure, a purpose was astounding. Her lapses in confidence, in stamina were always momentary, before a friend or her inner voice spoke to her, and urged her onward
The Girl Guiding movement played a huge part, the badge challenges, the skills it asked of its participants the ultimate force that pushed the girls, gave life a meaning and an ingenious tool used by Elspeth.
Gaynor, intertwined the fate of the local Chinese, their fear but also bravery as they assisted the interned. The soldiers that guarded them a mix of the good and the bad, feared by their prisoners.
You got a huge feel for the sapping heat in the summer, the biting chill of the winters, the illness that plagued their malnourished and ravaged bodies. You wondered how they survived, where they found the resolve and stoicism to endure.
I loved that Gaynor don’t drag the novel down with endless misery, and gloom, but injected moments of joy, of love and more importantly friendship. They were friendships that endured time and life and I would have been so cross if Gaynor had not included an epilogue!
The Bird In The Bamboo Cage was a refreshing change in the swathe of novels set in World War II. It was entertaining, educational, fascinating and a wonderful read.
I would like to thank Harper Collins for a copy of The Bird In The Bamboo Cage to read and review and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting My Bookish Blogspot to participate in the blogtour.
About the author
Hazel Gaynor is an award-winning, New York Times, USA Today,
and Irish Times, bestselling author of historical fiction, including
her debut THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME, for which she received
the 2015 RNA Historical Novel of the Year award. THE
LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER’S DAUGHTER was shortlisted for the 2019
HWA Gold Crown award. She is published in thirteen languages
and nineteen countries. Hazel is co-founder of creative writing
events, The Inspiration Project, and currently lives in Ireland with
her family, though originally from Yorkshire.