Dreaming the enemy by David Metzenthen (Allen & Unwin, 2016)
47 chapters; 292 pages
Subjects: Vietnam, Australia, conscription, veterans, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), young adult fiction (Year 11-13)
Johnny Shoebridge has come home from fighting in the jungles of Vietnam. It’s hard to readjust to ordinary life with his parents and the girl he used to know. He is haunted by memories of all the things he has seen; literally haunted, by a Viet-Cong ghost fighter called Khan who won’t leave him alone.
He is still young and can’t understand how he has ended up in this position: “How had he gone from a kid swinging a stick as a Samurai sword, the star of a flickering home movie, to a nineteen-year-old digger on ambush, prepared to shoot someone in the side of the head?” He has lost good mates in battle and is trying to summon up the courage to go and visit their families. (These eventual encounters make for heart-wrenching scenes.) Even though he was a conscript with no choice about going, he’s assailed by anti-Vietnam war protesters, with people coming up to say “I just hope you’re happy… with what you did.”
“There was an awful lot of stuff that he wished he didn’t know.”
The story jumps back and forth in time and place. In the present, Johnny is back home again, heading off on a road trip. In the past, he is getting to know his new mates Baz and Lex; they start training together, go out on patrol, and fight side by side in battle. Another parallel story is that of Khan, Trung and Thang as they hide in the jungle, crawl through tunnels and fight on the other side.
I found the parts where Johnny somehow knows or imagines what Khan is doing a bit confusing, perhaps because of the distance imposed by having Johnny comment on what he sees. What worked best for me were the scenes between Johnny and his mates, and their convincing teenage-boy speech as they get to know and rely on each other. Johnny “knew himself to be one corner of a triangle, the strongest shape of all. He knew Lex and he knew Barry like he knew no one else on the planet.”
Of course you know that’s not going to end well. They’re going to get caught up in some terrible fighting and you suspect that at least one of them won’t make it home again.
Booksellers NZ calls it “a poignant novel, posing meaningful questions about the effects of war”. It acknowledges “some might suggest the book is difficult to keep up with as it flicks from past to present to imagination “, but suggests that “this is in keeping with Johnny’s head and the confusion that follows him”.
A very good review in The Australian too: this final paragraph is worth quoting in full:
“Senior secondary students, especially boys, (and their teachers) might be grateful if Dreaming the Enemy were set for study. It is a sophisticated work — substantial, powerful, highly readable and with key characters close to their age. It touches on many issues: the aftermath of war, including how returned fighters were and are treated; the effects on mental and physical health and on families and relationships. It looks at conscription, the politics of wars, the destruction caused by the bombing and napalm, the attitudes of Americans, the contribution of Australians, and much else. The story is infused with humanity and embellished by Metzenthen’s flair for language and flashes of dry Aussie humour.”
And on Reading time, David Metzenthen has some very wise words about the book:
“I wanted strongly to present something of what young Australians went through in this war, at the orders of their Government, and the great toll it took on them, their families, friends, and futures. In Dreaming The Enemy, I hope to have shown what happens to people, that what we do or is done to us, stays with us for a long time and must be met with compassion and understanding.”
About the author
David Metzenthen lives in Melbourne. He is a keen environmentalist and was an advertising copywriter and a builder’s labourer before turning to fiction. He has written another war-related YA novel, Boys of blood and bone, as well as the thought-provoking picture book One minute’s silence.
Other books you might like:
There aren’t nearly as many books about Vietnam as about World Wars One and Two. One book that I have reviewed is The battle of Messines Road.
Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!