‘This book brings my youth to life, and what an incredible time it was!’ says Alex Faure, speaking about Dragons in the Forest.
Author Peter Yeldham without a doubt brings Alex’s years spent in Japan during the Second World War to life, and they were indeed an incredible experience.
Alex is not yet twenty in December 1941, when he describes the attack on Pearl Harbour in his diary. His father, a Frenchman, has already left Japan; his mother, a white Russian, has very little money, and cannot expect any from the business Edward Faure left behind. Classified as neutrals, the family is not immediately interned like Alex’s American teachers, and a piece of good luck enables him to find work in a French bank.
Alex is an immediately engaging ‘character’. We follow his thoughts and feelings through his diary entries, as he advances to a special position at the bank and a growing friendship with the initially austere Count Savignan de Champeaux. Alex also makes friends with the Count’s secretary, while other employees are jealous and resentful. Meanwhile the war progresses, huge Japanese victories turning bit by bit into stalemate and defeat.
Though Dragons in the Forest is a true story, Yeldham uses novelistic techniques to good effect, the main one being his masterly characterisation of a young man caught up in a world conflict, but also personal conflicts at the bank, and at the small mountain community of Karuizawa, a place of luxurious summer holiday homes before the war. The community becomes an increasingly tense enclave for foreign neutrals banished from the cities. When German nationals are added to the mix, the tensions threaten to boil over into violence.
Much of Japan’s war history is well-known; it’s Yeldham’s skill in bringing us close to the events that makes Dragons in the Forest so rich and rewarding a read.
The bombing of Tokyo is a good example. The mood of Japanese citizens remains defiant. ‘In the Ginza Alex saw a stars and stripes flag painted on the pavement for people to walk across and spit on.’ But daily and nightly air-raids cause panic.
‘Since Sunday night there has been a raid most days and every single night. The bombing has been relentless.’ (From the diary entry for Dec 22nd 1944)
Alex’s younger sister is a skilfully drawn minor character, as is his girlfriend Odette. Having nowhere private to meet on Alex’s weekend visits to Karuizawa, he and Odette make a love-nest in the forest bordering the golf course. When they’re almost found by Odette’s father, humour and a lighter touch are added to a mostly sombre, intensely dramatic story. This forest, home to Alex’s imaginary games as a child, gives rise to the book’s title. Yeldham has a strong reputation as a historical novelist as well as a writer for film and television. Dragons in the Forest will no doubt make that reputation stronger still.