Having achieved considerable success with his first novel, River Thieves, Michael Crummey has written a book that is equally stunning and compelling. The Wreckage is a truly epic, yet twisted, romance that unfolds over decades and continents. It engages readers on the austere shores of Newfoundland’s fishing villages and drags them across to Japanese POW camps during some of the worst events of the Second World War. Haunting, lyrical, and deeply intimate,...
He was never dry.

Every day they abandoned field guns mired in mud. The tires and axles of ammunition carts disappeared in sludge and the shells for the guns still with them were carried by hand. Half a dozen men at the front of the column slashed a trail with machetes, the rainforest so densely organic, so humid and rank, it felt as if they were forcing their way through the tissue of a living creature. Soldiers lost their footing on exposed roots, on the slick ground, and they collapsed under their packs like marionettes cut free of strings. There was only river water to drink, and everyone in the company was miserable with dengue and with dysentery, men stepping out of the column to relieve themselves in the bush. Nishino thought the reek alone would be enough to give away their position.

Animals he would never see or know by name called and cawed in the trees. Only the birds came into view, hallucinatory flashes of colour dipping through the branches. The parrots picked up words and phrases from the soldiers and mimicked them. Hikoki hikoki sent the entire company face down into the foliage, listening for American planes.

They’d out-marched their rice rations and the soldiers were fed a little dried fish and crackers and hard candy at midday. Nishino sat beside Ogawa as they ate, and they picked through each other’s hair and clothing for fleas and biting ants and chiggers. Then Ogawa lay his head in Nishino’s lap and slept until the officers ordered them on.

He heard a voice calling “Yes sir!” and crouched defensively, swinging his rifle up to his waist, staring left and right.

Ogawa tilted his head. “Are you all right, Noburo?”

He heard the phrase repeated twice more before he realized it was a parrot calling from the forest. He let the rifle come down by his side and looked around at the other soldiers.

“Noburo?”

No one else had noticed. “Never mind,” he said.

At the end of the day’s march he went to Lieutenant Kurakake, who was sitting under a fold of canvas with maps spread across his thighs. The charts glowing with a yellow bioluminescent substance smeared on the surface for light. He stood to one side at attention.

“Yes?” the lieutenant said finally.

He hesitated. Bowed deeply. “I heard a parrot,” he said.

Kurakake looked up at him. “We have all heard them,” he said. “Endlessly,” he said.

“It was an English phrase I heard, Lieutenant.”

“English?”

“Yes. I am certain of it.”

“What is your name, Private?”

“Nishino, sir. Noburo Nishino.”

“And what did this bird say to you, Private Nishino?”

“It said, ‘Yes sir.’ Several times.”

The lieutenant nodded slowly. He called to a company sergeant and ordered him to double the number of soldiers on sentry duty through the night. He nodded up to Nishino, dismissing him.

All the way back to the spot where Ogawa lay sleeping, he could feel the officer’s eyes following him.

Shortly before dark the next evening the soldiers crested a hill, breathing in open air blowing off a long grassy ridge a hundred feet below. The officers walked through the ranks, whispering, ordering them to dig in.

Nishino woke to the sound of the Americans talking among themselves below, their conversation carried up to him on the wind. Ogawa was still asleep, and Nishino lay quiet next to him, trying to pick words from the drift. Eased away from the boy finally to relieve himself in the trees. Covered his face as he crouched, shivering uncontrollably, his skin slick with sweat as the stink ran from him.

Lieutenant Kurakake was standing over Ogawa when Nishino came back. “Lieutenant,” he said and bowed.

He could smell a hint of something sweet in the air, something refined and so foreign to the place and condition he was in that he sniffed the air like a dog. Lieutenant Kurakake smiled at Nishino’s confusion, brought his hands from behind his back and passed across a small crystal bottle.

“My wife’s perfume,” Kurakake told him. “I wanted to have something of her with me.”

Nishino nodded, unsure what to make of the revelation, wary of the unexpected intimacy. Kurakake’s hair was greying at the temples, the bags under his eyes so dark they were almost black. He was older than any other officer in the field with them.

“You are not married,” Kurakake said.

Nishino shook his head.

“There is a woman at home? Someone is waiting for you?”

He looked briefly into Kurakake’s face, shook his head again. He returned the bottle of perfume.

Kurakake watched him a moment. “A story for another time,” he said. He looked down at Ogawa still motionless on the ground. The young man’s face even more childish in sleep. The officer made a dissatisfied noise in his throat. “This boy,” he said. “Chozo. He depends on you.”

“We help one another.”

Kurakake nodded dismissively. “What is it that is wrong with him?”

“I don’t know,” Nishino said. Though he understood exactly what the officer meant. There was something simple about Ogawa that made him seem younger even than his age.

The lieutenant made the same dissatisfied noise and nodded. Then turned and left them.

Nishino dozed half an hour more, waking occasionally to shift on the ground. Catching the faintest scent of perfume every time he brought his hands near his face.

The soldiers were given the last of the company’s food that afternoon, one can of sardines for every two men. He and Ogawa cleaned the oil from the can with their fingers. Nishino was hungrier after eating than before, and he felt the hunger sharpening an edge in him.

Ogawa stared down at the Americans. They moved about in the open, wearing only undershirts. Sunlight glinting off the dog tags around their necks. “I wonder what they’re saying.” He shook his head in disgust. “Sssss ssss sss. That’s all it sounds like to me.”

Nishino had removed his shoes and socks, splashing his feet with river water from the canteen and wiping them dry with his shirt. All but two of his toenails had blackened and fallen off. He said, “They’re too far off to make anything out.” Quickly added, “Even if you could speak the language.”

Ogawa smiled. “We’ll hear them up close soon enough,” he said.

The drone of aircraft billowed in off the ocean, and men on both sides paused to scan the horizon. Japanese bombers. A scurry of movement among the soldiers below, orders shouted. The planes dropping their payloads on the grassy ridge to soften the American defences.


From the Hardcover edition.