The flamboya tree is a simple short memoir. It also happens to be astonishingly powerful principally because of that very simplicity and brevity. Clara Olink Kelly was a 4 year old child when her world was turned upside down. The child of Dutch colonial parents, she had led a privileged life in the, then, Dutch colony of Java. She and her brother lived in a comfortable home with a beautiful garden, loving parents, a host of eager to please, friendly servants, and an enchanting exotic background. Everything changed however when the Imperial Japanese Army invaded the island. Clara's father was marched away to become slave labour on the Burma railroad, while Clara, her mother, and her two brothers, one aged just six weeks old ended up in a Japanese civilian concentration camp.

The anger that Clara still feels about this period of her life is palpable. Even today, the Japanese government has failed to apologise, or indeed offer any sympathy, for the inhumane treatment that both civilians and the military received in their camps. There has been no suggestion of culpability, no reparations, and the entire period is blotted out of Japanese school books. In common with many survivors Kelly feels that it is important to tell her story and to remember, not least for all those whose lives were cut short by unspeakable cruelty.

And there is cruelty aplenty in this memoir, all the more shocking for being told in a straightforward undramatic style - in fact the voice of a child. Clara's memory of two women being bludgeoned to death for no greater crime than talking in line is imprinted on her memory, and becomes imprinted on the reader's too. Clara witnessed things, and went through events that no human being, let alone a child, should be forced to undergo, that she has come through remarkably collected, sane and human is in no small part due to her mother.

The flamboya tree of the title was a painting that her mother packed and took into the camps with the family. It was the only thing that she took with her which had no practical use whatsoever, but wherever the flamboya tree hung the family got a sense of home. It was this sense as much as anything that got the family through the war, an awareness that there was a world of something better outside the wire, and that there was a life worth surviving for. Intensely moving, and beautifully written in a plain straight-talking style, this book had me gripped from start to finish. I read it through in one sitting - the first time I've done this in some time. Well worth reading.


Popular Posts