A story set against the backdrop of a historic prison-break in World War II era Philippines turns into an absorbing novel of love, sacrifice, and duty in David L. Robbins's Broken Jewel. Robbins is known for his attention to historical accuracy, and his latest novel does not disappoint. Every aspect of the comfort women system, life in a Japanese internment camp, and details of the American march into Luzon are all perfectly integrated into a story about three struggling people caught in Los Baños.
A novel that could have devolved into a mere retelling of known historical events comes alive through the voices and tribulations of three central characters Remy Tuck, his son Talbot, and Carmen, a comfort woman. As with the rest of the camp, these three are held against their will, forced to inhabit lives they hate. Remy is the consummate gambler, attempting to manipulate his luck - and the luck of his son - through his cards. After the death of his wife, Remy pulled back from his life, receding into his gambling habit and resisting closeness with his son. He has a different set of challenges in Los Baños, though, and his old coping mechanisms are failing him. Death is everywhere and his luck is changing and not for the better. Alongside Remy, Tal also struggles with the status quo of life in the camp. A boy desperate to be a man, and obsessed with becoming a hero, Tal believes that fighting the Japanese through petty theft and open hostility is the only way to prove his maturity. Remy and Tal dance around each other, both wanting a closer relationship, both unsure of how to proceed. The pressures of camp life, the cruelty of the Japanese, and the constant threat of death force both father and son to face the realities of their failed relationship. One point of issue between them is Tal's love for Carmen, the comfort woman in the camp. Remy struggles with his son's focus on a woman he sees as unacceptable, and Tal, like a medieval knight from a beloved story, wants only to free her. Carmen is also struggling. Forced into sexual slavery and fearful of open defiance, she dreams daily of Tal and devises her own quiet way of fighting the Japanese.
With keen insight and deft characterization, Robbins investigates the pressures of deprivation and cruelty on the most common of human relationships the love between a father and son and the love between a man and a woman in a most uncommon circumstance. As each character changes over the course of the novel, it becomes clear that the desire to survive will not be enough to free them from the nightmare of the camp. Only through duty, love and coming together will escape be possible for Remy, Tal, and Carmen.
Surrounding these three characters is the dangerous world of Los Baños in the final days of World War II. The Americans are on the march, and the Japanese army is over-stretched and tired. History tells us how the story will end, but Robbins teases the reader, keeping the tension high and the suspense constant. Details about life in the camp and the depictions of the people there the nuns in the Catholic section, the children playing in the yard, the Japanese guards exercising in loin cloths in the early mornings construct a vibrant tapestry of insight into life in Los Baños. Robbins's attention to historical detail and the sympathetic treatment of his captivating characters create an absorbing novel that will appeal to a variety of readers.
Interesting Link: A short history of the liberation of Los Baños internment camp at historynet.com
Image: The Los Baños internment camp
This review was originally published in November 2009, and has been updated for the August 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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