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My favourite read of 2021 – The Bird in the Bamboo Cage

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The Bird in the Bamboo Cage – by Hazel Gaynor

HarperCollins 2021 400 pages Paperback ISBN: 9780008393670

BACK IN OCTOBER, on my way to Switzerland, l found myself in the small bookshop in the departure lounge in Edinburgh Airport when l spotted The Bird in the Bamboo Cage by Hazel Gaynor. I had not heard of this book when it was published just over a year ago and therefore knew nothing about it but, for some reason, its evocative title page encouraged me to pick it up. I read the short summary on the back of the book and decided l would buy it. I am extremely glad l did despite it being a difficult read in places.

Whilst the book is classified as a work of fiction it has a very real historical context, set in China in 1941 when Japan declares war on the Allies. A young girl – Nancy Plummer – who is ten years old, is at Chefoo School where her teacher, Miss Kent, is doing her best to keep up her pupils’ spirits as new restrictions, including food rationing, are placed upon the school.

It is not long before the pupils and teachers at Chefoo have to face the horrors of being transferred to an internment camp, facing months of imprisonment and danger.

I did not have to read far to know that l would not be able to leave this book alone; it contains vivid descriptions of war, the fear which it brings, the atrocious circumstances in an internment camp, the depravity of the human oppressors, the pressures on physical and mental health but also the extraordinary resilience of those who were imprisoned – young, and not so young – and the bonds of friendship which emerged from all the horrors they experienced. Perhaps, above all, it was the fact that, having been a teacher myself, l could relate to the dilemmas facing Miss Kent as she wrestled with duties which were far more than those of a scholarly nature. How she reacted would define their chances of survival.

The story is told through the eyes of both Miss Kent and Nancy Plummer. It is clever writing because it is so sensitive to the perspectives of both adults and children and the different reactions they have to the events they experience. Indeed you can vividly imagine Miss Kent and Nancy Plummer together. With attention to detail, mainly about the war and the China of the 1940s, the author captures the history of the time but, much more than that, the essence of human relationships, particularly those which encompass true spirit in the face of adversity.

I found this book compelling and, whilst l won’t spoil the rest of the narrative for future readers, l have no doubt at all that it had a profound effect on me. It is a “must read” as far as l am concerned.

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