Drowning in the past

Victor Harbor Adelaide, By nnwinata (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Book review: The Drowned Man, by Brendan James Murray (Amazon / Book Depository)

A chance meeting in a fish and chip shop with a veteran sailor of the WWII battle cruiser HMAS Australia was the catalyst that eventually led to this extensively, even exhaustively, researched story. Brendan James Murray encounters an elderly man who proudly tells a brief story about a gay sailor who was thrown overboard because of his shipmates’ disapproval of his sexuality. Obviously disturbed by such a story and the boastful way it was told, Murray is even more drawn to it because his own grandfather had briefly served on the same ship.

So he asks him about it, and his grandfather adds a little more hearsay, and then his research and interviews begin, and mysteries begin to build up on themselves, and the truth goes far deeper and is much more complicated than what Murray seemed to first envision. The hate crime that was the impetus for his research was part of a much larger cultural problem of the time, and as Murray excellently connects the incident to present-day social conflicts, it’s not so far from crimes still taking place today. Like Faulkner said, the past is never dead, it isn’t even past. Horrifying as that may be, and all the more reason to understand what came before and how we can learn from and progress away from it.

Near the book’s conclusion, Murray writes, “The real measure of what was lost in the bloody years of the Second World war lies not in tales of destruction but in the lives of those who survived.” Over and over the narrative tells the stories of those who don’t make it outlive, including in many of the brutal kamikaze attacks on the Australia. These passages are pretty devastating. But strangely, even more heartbreaking really are those who lived, some for a very long time, and have to reflect on what they saw, did, and what was done to them. The greatest strength of the book is in the author’s very emotional connections to and understanding of the men he interviews, how he gets them to open up and tell their sides of the stories, to whatever extent they’re willing. And as he eloquently explains by likening these nebulous wartime experiences to Tim O’Brien’s explanation of the shifting nature of truth in The Things They Carried, memory is faulty and the truth is usually somewhere in between the many versions of a story that get told.

Murray’s literary knowledge is put to good use in the references he connects to the story he’s telling, and his writing is polished and journalistic, making an overall quite good work of narrative nonfiction. But for me (this is a personal criticism that I think wouldn’t matter to others with different interests) the chapters that focused heavily on the ship and sailors during battles didn’t grab me. I like military history, especially of the Second World War, but I found myself bored.

Murray clearly cares a lot about what the sailors went through and in presenting that for a fuller picture of their experience and I appreciate that because as I mentioned, this book ends up being about so much more than the mysterious murder(s) that brought it into being. I loved his writing about the people and the culture of the time and the connection between past and present, the difficulty of memory in wartime, and the social issues surrounding sexuality, but I did end up skimming some of those. As I said – personal criticism, it would make great reading for others with the right interests.

The Drowned Man:
A true story of life, death and murder on the HMAS Australia
by Brendan James Murray

published July 1, 2016 by Echo Publishing

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.

Amazon / Book Depository

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