THE WIND IS NOT A RIVER - Brian Payton THE WIND IS NOT A RIVER

Brian Payton (brianpayton.com)

Mantle (www.panmacmillan.com)

£16.99

John Easley, a reporter for the National Geographic is ejected – along with every other journalist in the region – from the Aleutian Islands when the Japanese make their first incursion onto American soil. When his brother, a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot, is later shot down over the English Channel, John’s grief leads him to the decision that the people of America deserve to know the truth about what is happening in the Aleutians. Sneaking into Alaska and thence onto the archipelago, John finds himself stranded on the island of Attu when the plane he is on is shot down by the occupying forces. Given the choice between survival in this barren land or torture at the hands of the Chinese, John decides to take his chance with the elements. Back in his home town of Seattle, his wife, Helen, is beginning to worry about his silence, and about their parting words on the night he left to return to Alaska. Signing up with a USO troop, Helen leaves everything behind – including her ailing father – to go in search of her missing husband, convinced that he needs her help.

When Brian Payton’s The Wind Is Not a River opens, we find John Easley waking from unconsciousness following his parachute jump from a fatally-wounded plane. His knowledge of the chain, and the proximity of Japanese anti-aircraft fire lead him quickly to understand that he has found himself on Attu, one of the few islands in the long chain that is known to be occupied by enemy forces. Forced to remain on the beach where he has awakened in order to avoid the attention of the small army that is just over the ridge, he sets up camp in a small cave, the limited supply of driftwood his only source of fuel and the mussels and slower seabirds his only source of sustenance. This is a barren land, and Payton goes to great lengths to ensure that we are aware of  just how much trouble Easley is likely to be in this little-known part of the world: the lack of food, the less-than-clement weather, the lack of wood for burning.

"You’ll be attracting plenty of attention," Cooper observes [to John’s wife, Helen]. "We have a saying out here: ‘There’s a woman hiding behind every tree in the Aleutian Islands.’"

When John discovers a tea tin buried at the edge of the beach containing all the worldly possessions of a young native woman called Tatiana, along with a letter to her lover, John finds himself falling love with this person he has never met, while all the time wondering what has become of her and the people with whom she shared the small village now occupied by the Japanese. It is the thought of Tatiana, rather than his wife, that keeps him going through his darkest hours, and yet there can be no doubt that this man loves the woman he has left behind in Seattle. The letter in the tin contains the line that gives the novel its title, and its meaning – when John finally works it out – comes as something of a revelation that puts the entire situation into some kind of perspective.

But the story of John is only half the tale told in this remarkable novel. Alternate chapters are told from the point of view of Helen, and we follow her as she decides to leave her home and her ill father behind to go off in search of her missing husband. There is something deeply touching, irredeemably romantic, in this gesture and, despite the long shot we know Helen is taking, we can’t help but wish her luck and hope that the two lonely protagonists at the centre of this beautiful tale do finally connect. With the help of a USO troop, and a doctored CV, Helen finds herself heading to Alaska and points beyond not only at no cost to herself, but with the full blessing and protection of the United States military. Determined to speak to as many people – both on and off the military bases she will be visiting – as she can in the short time she has available, Helen’s determination to find her husband is matched only by her husband’s determination to stay alive and out of the hands of the Japanese.

Brian Payton centres his story in one of the most remote locations on the planet – the beautiful but desolate chain of islands that almost joins Alaska with Russia – during one of the least known battles of the Pacific Theatre. Combining the cruelties of war – and, as history has shown, there were few more cruel than the Japanese military – with the cruelties of nature, the author presents a story that is as stark and beautiful as the landscape in which it is set.

"This is how they fight." The staff sergeant points at the gruesome sight. "First, they kill their own wounded before coming after ours. Kill the helpless men, then blow themselves to smithereens. This is the value they place on human life. Even their own. Where’s the honour in that?"

The third-person narrative means that nothing is predictable, nothing certain. The ending, when it comes, is handled perfectly despite being absolutely devastating (make sure you have some tissues handy), and the story throughout is intimate, touching and, often, more than a little playful.

Together they tried pitching stones baseball-style at gulls and puffins.  The boy had superior accuracy, owing to his American childhood. Easley grew up playing hockey, a sport with no obvious correlation to hunting, unless they were hunting dark mice scurrying across a frozen pond.

The Wind Is Not a River is a book that will draw you into the story of these separated lovers and their quest – however oblique – to be reunited. Entirely captivating and beautifully told it draws the reader in slowly, alternating between the two stories as the distance between their protagonists grows gradually smaller, until the book is almost impossible to set aside for anything but the briefest moment. At its heart, it is a beautiful tale of love and devotion – not, you’re probably thinking, the usual fare for Reader Dad (and you’d be right) – but it also shines a light on humanity in one of its recent dark periods. Between the cruelty of the Imperial Japanese Army and the individual cruelties of American men long separated from civilisation, Payton shows that nature at its worst doesn’t even compare. A surprising choice for me, I don’t expect to be this invested in a piece of fiction for the foreseeable future. Miss at your peril, but do keep the tissues handy.

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