Dorothy Johnston reviews Peter Yeldham's latest work "The Last Double Sunrise", which is available now. Carlo Minelli must surely be the most engaging – and lucky – prisoner of war in Australian literature.
Minelli is dubbed the POW Artist when he enters a painting in the Francis Greenway award from a prisoner-of-war camp in Cowra, New South Wales. The painting is disqualified, but earns Minelli a fair amount of publicity, much of it sympathetic. He has come to Cowra by a circuitous and dangerous route, having arrived in Rome to take up an artistic scholarship at the Villa Medici on the very day Il Duce declares war. The Villa, run by the French government, is locked and twenty-one-year old Minelli is turned away. Rome is in uproar and it isn’t long before the young man is press-ganged into the army.
The dramatic events of the second world war are much more than a back drop to this skilfully told story. Yeldham is a master at weaving together the personal life of his protagonist with real historical events, such as the Allied attack on Sidi Barrani where Minelli is taken prisoner and, much later in the story, the Japanese prisoners’ breakout at Cowra. Minelli is utterly believable, both as an artist and a reluctant soldier. This is partly because readers first meet him as a child, already displaying his artistic talent, which is encouraged by his mother, herself an art teacher, and scorned by his father, who is determined young Carlo will take over the running of the family vineyard.
Minelli’s character is formed in adversity. Instead of this making him openly angry and rebellious, it teaches him patience. Determined not to give up on his art, he has the kind of open, honest personality that other people, including some of his guards and jailors, warm to, and that makes them want to help him.
Allied officers aboard an overcrowded troop ship carrying prisoners to Australia rescue Minelli from a savage beating, and make a refuge for him in their wireless room. An Australian army officer’s wife suggests he should start a studio in the camp at Cowra, helping the theatrical group by painting sets, teaching, and working on his own paintings at the same time. The suggestion is enthusiastically taken up, and almost immediately becomes a success.
After a few false starts, Minelli is also lucky in love, finding a young Australian woman who is a match for him in every way.
As a protagonist, his trials and dangers, his hopes and feelings and ambitions are a joy to read about. The story of Italian prisoners of war, first in England, then Australia, is fascinating in itself, and told with verve and compassion. The Last Double Sunrise confirms Peter Yeldham’s reputation as an outstanding writer of historical fiction.