I just finished Spirit House by Mark Dapin today and I must say it’s one of those books that make you want to stop writing altogether. The reason being it’s so well-written that, as a fellow author, it’s easy to lose your motivation. You think, how will I ever be able to write something that good?
But that is obviously not critique towards Spirit House, because it’s a very entertaining read that I have only good things to say about.
Spirit House is much about the relationship between an old man and his grandson. The man, Jimmy, was a prisoner of war and a Digger on the Thai-Burma railway during the second world war and suffers greatly from the horrors of his past. He wakes up in the middle of the night screaming, being right in the middle of the memories that haunt him and the only way to alleviate this pain is to tell the story to his grandson, David.
David is really excited by the stories at first, but the more gory and brutal they get, the less he wants to hear about them. You could say he’s fascinated, but at the same time slightly sick to hear what he’s grandfather had to experience.
Spirit House is a deeply moving book. Dapin’s excellent use of the English language really paints a vivid picture of how it was to be involved in the war, not only as a POW but in general. The book is full of humor, especially in the dialogue of Jimmy and his old Digger friends, Solomon, Katz, and Myer who meet up to talk about the past from time to time, something which usually involves pretty harsh but mainly very funny conversations.
This is what Dapin writes himself about Spirit House: I wrote it as a war of remembering my own grandfather, and the generation who fought in the Second World War. I tried to capture their dry, sometimes brutal humour, their love of profanity (but only when there were no “ladies” present) and equally pronounced love of a drink. My granddad was not a POW. He served in the Air Rescue Service in the East End of London during the Blitz, but the characters of the old men in my novel are based loosely on him and his ex-service mates, and the conversations they used to have on Sunday afternoons in the club.
Dapin draws up great characters and he tells the story much like had been there himself. It obviously helps that Dapin is the editor of The Penguin Book of Australian War Writing, but still you can’t be nothing but impressed by the amount detail and emotion with which he tells the story. To be able to capture such a tale is no small feat, but Dapin does it brilliantly and he has crafted a novel that is equally distressing and tragic as it is funny and clever.
But before I end my review by recommending you to read this beautiful book, I should tell you what a spirit house is. A spirit house is a shrine to the protective spirit of a place. It’s found in Southeast Asian countries like Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. The spirit house is usually shaped like a miniature house or a temple. The house is intended to provide a shelter for the spirits.
And that’s why Jimmy is building a spirit house, to make the spirits leave him in peace. If he succeeds, you’d better find out yourself by reading Spirit House.