‘The Water Beetles’ by Michael Kaan

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Michael Minor

A relative latecomer to novel-writing, Winnipeg-born author Michael Kaan tells an important story in his debut The Water Beetles. Kaan elegantly folds the familiar form of the coming of age novel into a prisoner of war account, based on his father’s childhood in Japanese occupied Hong Kong during WWII.As the young narrator Chung-Man wisely acknowledges of the world depicted in this novel, all is at war. This novel’s action builds not to a comprehensive sense of closure—reaching maturity or the war ending and life resuming—but towards the acceptance that the narrator’s “body, mind, and memory” are in a constant state of conflict. Kaan provides beautifully apt imagery to show this conflict and leave his readers with a powerful impression of the indelible impact that war has had on Chung-Man’s life.

From the opening pages, Kaan maintains the tension of both internal and external wars featured in his book. But he shows remarkable restraint, never veering into the facile territory of melodrama. There is, of course, much drama, but it is detailed drama of the most sophisticated sort. The novel’s titular opening scene is taken from the chronological centre of the narrative and it provides the sort of attention to detail that the reader can expect from Kaan. As Chung-Man rests in the shade, “trying to forget,” he watches two beetles at war. At first, our narrator watches the beetles in an attempt to escape the harsh realities of his captivity as a prisoner of war, but he is almost forced to realize that, far from distracting him, they are a reminder of the war he is embroiled in. Paradoxically, he is attracted to and identifies with the smaller of the two beetles: “And if I still love this beetle, even when I can see that it will die, I wonder if I’m just unlucky—or worse, foolish.” The bewitching anxiety of this first scene stays with the reader throughout the novel, encouraging them to constantly engage with these questions of love, fortune, and war.

For the most part, Chung-Man is an effective narrator. Like most child narrators, he is unpretentious and has next to no reason to misrepresent the truth. There are good reasons that so many writers choose to show war through a child’s eyes, and Chung-Man stands proudly among many memorable child narrators. He certainly invites comparison to Naomi in Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, or, as the editors of the novel themselves note, Jim in J. G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun. The only exceptions to the effectiveness of Chung-Man’s narration are the transitions between scenes. While most scenes are rendered with a vividness that is characteristic of the novel, there are a few that seem to fall flat or sound inconsistent with the narrator’s voice.

For instance, Chung-Man seems unusually cognizant of the political and historical contexts he is caught in. This seems an odd thing to be preoccupied with as a twelve-year-old prisoner of war, even if it is helpful to us as readers. There are a number of forward flashes which could explain this inconsistency, where the octogenarian Chung-Man tells us about his relationships after the war and life in America. But even these are abrupt in their transitions and tenuous in their connection to the main plot of the novel. Nevertheless, Kaan seems to be quite aware of “how little we can truly transcribe of what resides inside us.” He has had to make many difficult decisions to include or exclude elements of this tale. Predominantly, he does a very good job of including the most important and excising any of the fat.

The one unreconciled tension that exists in this novel is its insistence on maintaining the vestiges of class, even as people of diverse backgrounds heroically survive the brutality of life as prisoners of war. When Chung-Man and his older brother Leuk leave their rather palatial family home in search of shelter from the growing uncertainties of war, their older brother gives them each a belt with a solid gold buckle to be used as a last resort. The gold is disguised using mercury, so that it will appear to be an unassuming, well-worn belt. Even during the most horrifying scenes of abuse that surrounds the boys, their attention seems to be on the preservation of the gold. When all’s said and done, these buckles serve as a reminder to the reader that even war is mediated by privilege and that systems of class can, and perhaps even should, be protected in the face of even the greatest socio-political upheavals. Obviously, this message chafes against a much more appealing reading of this novel: the survival of human dignity and family despite the ravages of war.

While the broad strokes of plot and theme reveal that we may never conclude the invaluable reckoning of conflict or growing into maturity, there are some stylistic weaknesses that detract slightly from the force with which these affecting philosophical strains in the novel are underscored. At times, the voice of the narrator is uneven. And there are some elements of the narrative that seem to lead nowhere but to the author’s indulgence of family history. My only substantive criticism is Kaan’s treatment of class throughout the novel. Chung-Man makes it clear that he comes from a highly privileged background, and not even war seems able to produce true equality between this wealthy boy and the other prisoners. Rather than advocating for the humanity of all the prisoners suffering the ravages of war, the disguised golden belt buckle serves as a symbol of privilege and the exceptional treatment amongst the prisoners that seems to belong inherently to him.

Kaan’s debut is undoubtedly worthy of close and careful attention. Ultimately, it is a novel that powerfully adds to the formidable body of prisoner of war accounts (Laura Hillenbrand’s commercially successful Unbroken or Elie Wiesel’s influential Night, for example). It courageously enters the deep waters of trauma and memory, and avoids the temptation of pretending that this trauma has left Chung-Man unscarred. This novel works toward the much more difficult acceptance of the damages of war.

Goose Lane│360 pages│$22.95│paperISBN #978-0864929662

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Michael Minor

Michael Minor is an English instructor in the Inner-City Social Work Program at the University of Manitoba, where he has recently completed his PhD in decolonial poetry. He writes poetry, songs, and academic essays. He lives in Winnipeg with his partner and their child.