Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2020
Roland Perry is the author of 36 books, the latest of which is Red Lead, a dramatised history of the events surrounding the sinking of HMAS Perth by the Japanese in the Sunda Strait in WW11, the capture of some of its survivors on Java and their experiences as prisoners of war in the direst of conditions, including at Changi and on the Thai-Burma Railway.
It is a highly accessible style of history telling, which focusses on the experiences, relationships and feelings of the individuals in the thick of it, rather than on military commanders and campaigns run from remote offices.
In this case, the titular protagonist is a cat originally taken on board HMAS Perth as a top-class ratter. However, both the Captain of Perth who first adopts Red Lead – called for her toppling a can of this paint and leaving her red footprints on the deck – and Petty Officer Dan Bolt, who becomes her companion on land during the time of the men’s captivity, are also significant carriers of this sensitive and well researched examination of war.
It is so important that these stories be told and we are fortunate that information and perspectives can be drawn from diaries of the time. There is something peculiarly Australian in the matter of fact telling of some of the horrific events of war and ghastly conditions of the POWs. It makes it all the more poignant and affecting.
It is not merely a clever literary device to use the story of the cat called Red Lead as a layer of comfort for the reader. Red Lead experiences much of the men’s trauma and so the recounting of her survival, her bravery and her intuitive defending of her human companions is at the same time the story of the sailors themselves.
There is no gilding of the lily here – the men, as in wider society, cover the gamut of ‘goodness’ and ‘baseness’. It is the way they work as a unit once captured that distinguishes the relationships, the acceptance of each man’s strengths and weaknesses.
The lead character Dan Bolt quickly earns our respect, as he does with most of the men with whom he shares this period of the war. The author chooses to paint him in both personal and professional dimensions, highlighting both his humanity and his leadership skills. Similarly, Red Lead is both a warrior with a fighting heritage and a domestic feline sharing affection and loyalty with her human companions.
Roland Perry is a highly proficient and engaging storyteller, a writer invested in the histories (real and imagined across his genres) he shares with us.
Red Lead joins his previous works in bolstering our knowledge and understanding of times past, but also in inviting us to examine our present dilemmas and challenges with the benefit of comparison – hence a humbling process and one which inevitably engenders respect and admiration for those whose actions he brings to the public gaze. A 21st century COVID period readership will find much upon which to ruminate.
Thanks to Allen & Unwin for providing me with a review copy and to DMCPR for facilitating my interview with Roland.