Book Review: “The Divine Wind” by Garry Disher

Garry Disher’s The Divine Wind is a must-read for all who are familiar with war, and especially for those who have never experienced it.

The book won the 1999 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award for Young People’s Literature. It is set in Broome, whose famous pearling industry has long relied on the skills and experiences of aboriginal, islander and Japanese divers.

Like every other multicultural community across the globe, it is here that friendship and mutual respect as well as prejudice and discrimination exists between people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

The book’s protagonist, Hartley, is the son of a pearling master. Growing up, the hurt caused by his parents’ flawed marriage is somewhat compensated by the happy, untroubled times spent with his three best friends – his own sister Alice, Jamie, the son of a local magistrate, and Misty, the daughter of a Japanese diver and his soy sauce-making wife.

But all childhoods must end. Worse, the Second World War arrives, bringing with it the sort of propaganda that slowly and steadily changes people’s perception of others and themselves.

In exquisite yet sober prose, Hartley shows us how prejudice and discrimination are formed and allowed – even actively encouraged – to become standardised and widely circulated, eventually taken for granted as a “natural” way of life.

In this small community, seemingly overnight, friends are turned into enemies. Families and lovers are torn apart. Cruelty, betrayal and vengeance are masqueraded as loyalty. Individuals and communities are denied their dignity and basic human rights. All in the name of war.

Describing his feelings towards Misty, Hartley’s words well illustrate how war and propaganda can considerably change a person’s – and even a whole generation’s – worldview:

“How can you love and hate someone at the same time? How can you continue to want them, and yet despise them? It has happened to all of us, yet when it first happens there is nothing more hurtful and confusing… we are…the worst of ourselves, the side we’re scarcely aware of.”

The book tells a heart-wrenching story. It does not have a happy ending, as readers are left with these words from Hartley, that even after the war “it won’t be easy, we may not make it”. These words serve as a reminder of our potential to turn ugly and hostile the next time a certain conflict threatens what we are told is and should continue to be the way of our life.

In the author’s own words: “[Hartley] says, ‘We may not make it’, meaning he knows the terrible pressures he faces now, in post-war Australia, but is willing to give it a go.” Not everybody can be a hero. But, in the spirit of the Anzacs, we remain quietly hopeful.

Garry Disher’s The Divine Wind was published by Hodder Headline in 1998 and has since been reprinted many times. You can find a print edition of the book, published by Lothian Children’s Books in 2019, in your local library.

Note: This book review was originally published under the title “Must-read war story”, by Ranges Trader Star Mail, April 27, 2021.

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