Mark Dapin vividly remembers the exact moment he was struck by the idea for his second novel, Spirit House, writes Francine Wolfisz
Aged 26, the Leeds-born writer and journalist was backpacking his way through south-east Asia when he found himself standing in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, close to the River Kwai, where thousands of prisoners of war were forced by the Japanese to construct the Thai-Burma Railway during the Second World War.
Fascinated by this part of history, Dapin began to think of his own beloved grandfather, Jimmy, who had passed away just days before. Although Jimmy had served on the other side of the world, as part of the Air Rescue Service in London’s East End, his story and that of the survivors of Asia’s enforced labour camps began to merge in his mind – a story that would in later years bring the Sydney-based author critical acclaim from around the world.
Spirit House, which has just been released in paperback from Atlantic Books, revolves around the story of 13-year-old David from Sydney, whose parents have just split up. When his mother finds a new lover, he is packed off to live with his Jewish grandparents. His grandfather, Jimmy Reubens, is a veteran and survivor of enforced labour on the Thai-Burma railway. Haunted by the ghost of his long-dead comrades, Jimmy confides in his young grandson, who in turn helps the patriarch come to terms with his brutal past.
And like his fictional veteran, Dapin admits that he too has been “haunted” by memories of his beloved grandfather, Jimmy.
The father-of-two, who describes himself as an atheist – but who maintains an interest in Jewish culture -tells me: “He died four days into my trip, so I never went to his funeral, I never mourned for him. I dreamed every night – and still do now – that he rings me up and says: “Do you want to go for a drink?” And I will say: “What do you mean – you’re dead!” And he’ll say: “No I’m not dead, there’s been a mistake.” I still feel very much like he’s around me.”
While Jimmy influenced the main character of Spirit House, the real-life friends of his beloved grandfather served as templates for the book’s own wisecracking yiddisher comrades – Solomon the tailor, Myer the optician and Ernie the former war artist.
Dapin, who has a nine-year-old son, Ben and five-year-old daughter, Sara, with his partner Claire, recalls: “My grandfather would meet his mates at the Jewish club on Sundays. They were the only ones that would enjoy a beer, while everyone else had a whiskey and tucked into bagels! I would say that I have traces of that sardonic humour they were always displaying. You could only tell they were friends by the way they insulted each other! It’s happy memories for me, of them relating to one another like that.”
With the characters forming in his mind, Dapin, who appeared at Jewish Book Week on Sunday, set about researching the historical side to his novel – and was surprised by just how many Jewish soldiers were connected to the Thai-Burma railways.
Visiting a museum where Changi Prison, a former Japanese prisoner of war camp in Singapore, once stood, Dapin noticed a drawing of a synagogue.
“You would think, why on earth would there be a synagogue in what looks an awful lot like a concentration camp? But actually it was built by the Highlanders for the Jewish internees there. As I researched more, I discovered there were in fact several books written by Jewish internees at Changi and who worked on the railway – something I didn’t know before I started writing this story.”
Among the many memoirs he came across were Chaplain On The River Kwai, written by Chaim Nussbaum, a Sephardi-Dutch rabbi who administered to prisoners on the Burma railway, and From Gorbals to Jungle, the memories of Scottish-Jewish internee Jack Caplan – who notoriously burned the Japanese flag as Emperor Akihito passed by on a visit to London in 1998.
The final element of the story – the eponymous spirit house – refers to an altar that Jimmy builds in his Bondi bungalow, as a way of laying his ghosts to rest.
I ask Dapin if he too has now found a spirit house by writing this book and finally coming to terms with the death of his grandfather.
“I wanted it to be a kind of a tribute to him and in so far as it is that, the book has served its purpose,” suggests Dapin. “When I left England, I really wanted to do something that would make him proud of me – and he would certainly have appreciated that I’ve done this.”
Spirit House by Mark Dapin, published by Atlantic Books, is available in paperback now, priced £.8.99.