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Book review: Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms

Sarah Biggerstaff

Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms is the latest novel from the celebrated Indigenous Australian author, Anita Heiss.

Set against the backdrop of rural New South Wales during the second World War, it tells the story of the burgeoning relationship between a young Aboriginal girl, Mary, and a Japanese Prisoner of War, Hiroshi, who has escaped from the POW camp on the fringes of Cowra, where Mary and her family live as part of an Aboriginal community, separated from the white population of the town.

Though the possibility of romance between these two characters is a central focus of the novel, it also deals with a range of social and political issues affecting the Aboriginal community within the novel. Heiss’s storytelling plunges the reader into a world of surveillance, judgement, and danger, exploring the difficulties the Aboriginal community have, not only in concealing the escaped prisoner, but also in remaining out of official difficulties on their own account.

The novel explores the prejudices and inequalities endured by Aboriginal people at an institutional as well as a social level, at this period of Australian history.

It also explores the racial prejudices held by white Australians against their Japanese enemies during World War Two, and considers how mutual understanding of different cultures is necessary for social harmony.

Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms is set during a time in Australia’s history when the government systematically repressed the traditional owners of the land, forcing them into unfamiliar and often impoverished ways of life. As such, it reflects this social climate of unfairness and prejudice. It explores issues of loneliness, morality, and the importance of compassion.

Each culture represented is held up to scrutiny, while the complexities of familial, social, and patriotic obligations are painted in vivid language. ‘If you go to war, please die’ Hiroshi’s father tells him, setting up for the reader the incredibly strict and complex honour system operating in Hiroshi’s home country. For many, this kind of mentality is almost beyond comprehension, and Anita Heiss’s novel plunges the reader into another world in its portrayal of harsh realities and difficult relationships.

Yet the bond which emerges between the two central characters illustrates the power that compassion and generosity of spirit have to change lives, even in the most difficult, and even dangerous of conditions. As Hiroshi and Mary, individuals from two warring nations get to know each other better, the senseless devastation caused by war and institutional disregard for individual life becomes a potent motif within the narrative. Yet, it is also a message of the novel that individuals have the power to create change, through kindness, understanding, and respect.

Though much of the subject matter is confronting and deeply saddening, Heiss’s writing is lyrical and engaging, as she paints a vivid picture of rural life in mid-twentieth-century Australia. At heart, this is a novel about finding love in unexpected places, and learning from those who we see as different from ourselves, by recognising that we are ultimately all alike in our shared humanity.

You can find Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms at Muse Canberra.

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Sarah Biggerstaff

Sarah Biggerstaff is a literary enthusiast, from Canberra, with a Masters degree in English Literature from the University of York in the United Kingdom. She is currently in her first year of an English PhD, the focus of which is British women’s fiction from the inter-war period, with a particular interest in feminist readings of these novels. Sarah hopes to one day write books, as well as review them, and in the meantime, is happy sharing her passion for books with others. More about the Author

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