Brian Matthews reviews 'Archipelago of Souls' by Gregory Day

Brian Matthews reviews 'Archipelago of Souls' by Gregory Day

Archipelago of Souls

by Gregory Day

Picador, $32.95 pb, 374 pp, 9781743537190

An official account of a naval battle off the coast of Crete on 22 May 1941 includes reference to a ‘friendly fire’ incident when ‘HMS Orion was … repeatedly hit by 40mm shots from HMS Dido, which, in the maelstrom, ended up shooting at her comrade’. A few days later, during the evacuation from Heraklion, the crippled HMS Imperial had to be scuttled and, according to one version, some Australian soldiers were left behind on Crete and others went down with the ship.

In the ‘Author’s Note’ to Archipelago of Souls, Gregory Day cautions that, although ‘the research that has gone into this novel has been extensive, it is a work of the imagination and should not be read as history’, but quite possibly his considerable knowledge of the catastrophic 1941 Crete campaign included the separate fates of the Orion, Dido, and Imperial. Fragments of their sorry story, ‘rearranged or relocated’, as Day puts it, could credibly have contributed to his fictional construction of the central event of this novel, the one which haunts the protagonist, Wesley Cress, and, after the war, helps fuel his inclination for reclusiveness and guarded silence.

For all that it intriguingly echoes aspects of the historical events, however, Archipelago of Souls is unquestionably ‘a work of the imagination’, and it is a daring and often poetic imagination that conducts the narrative of Cress’s Cretan ordeal and its peacetime aftermath. He begins with the ‘true horrors of the German landing’:

the shock came from the open sky when hundreds of coloured brollies of the Fallschirmjaeger suddenly appeared over the water.
       From that moment on, Hell ruled the island. Tiny Freyberg had expected the Germans to come by sea but instead from the air the brollies came down in a slow insidious drift. Were they dots in front of our eyes, a mirage of the heat? No, they came and then they began to land, to become indisputably real. They fell into quarries and fountains, onto beaches and spits, into lanes and backyards and into dried-up riverbeds.

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Published in August 2015, no. 373
Brian Matthews

Brian Matthews

Brian Matthews is the author of short stories, essays, and biographies. He was a weekly columnist for the Weekend Australian Magazine (1997–2001) and has been a monthly columnist for Eureka Street since 1997. His memoir A Fine and Private Place (2000) won the inaugural Queensland Premier’s Award for non-fiction and his Manning Clark: A Life (2008) won the National Biography Award in 2010.

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