War has been described in so many essentially different ways – as the failure of humanity or the expression of its basest instincts, as outright chaos or an exchange of tactical manoeuvres – that perhaps its only definitive quality is contradiction. In The Water Beetles, the debut novel by Winnipeg-born Michael Kaan, the “opening act” of the 1941 Japanese invasion of Hong Kong is described using the metaphor of a hammer: “The invader brings it down and everyone is stunned to see buildings fall, roads blown open to expose the primitive earth beneath their feet. … In the second act, a strange, corrupted underlay of normalcy emerges from the broken world.” A transformational technology, an instrument that destroys old structures and builds new ones – like every literary device in The Water Beetles, the hammer metaphor is eminently precise.
Kaan’s evident technical skill is deployed in service of the narrative and in proportion to its subject, and this restraint subtly invokes the British colonial education of his narrator, Chung-Man Leung, a widower and retired doctor living out the end of his life in Singapore.
Born into a wealthy family in Hong Kong in 1930, Chung-Man remembers the conflict prior to 1941 – before the Second Sino-Japanese War was fully absorbed into the Second World War – only peripherally, like “an argument overheard through an open window.” The Japanese occupation brings destruction, rationing, and brutality, the first few months of which the young Chung-Man and his family endure in their large home with a growing cast of displaced neighbours. He eventually flees with his brother, sister, and sister-in-law to the countryside of southeast China, where they are taken in by various households before being captured by Japanese soldiers.
Based loosely on the diaries and stories of Kaan’s Hong Kong–born father, The Water Beetles foregrounds the personal dimension of war and displacement, highlighting minute details that fall beyond the scope of political history. Though he has already witnessed atrocities in occupied Hong Kong, Chung-Man’s diocesan school sensibilities bristle against the culture of Chinese village life, where men rule over their families with extreme violence and adulterers are publicly hanged. However, whether in a remote village or a prisoner-of-war camp, Chung-Man recognizes everywhere the interdependence of order and violence, obedience and force.
The Water Beetles is an engrossing and satisfying work that suffers at times from what is perhaps too much authorial control. The narrative device of having present-day Chung-Man recall the novel’s action in the past tense allows Kaan to bring a lifetime’s worth of consideration to bear on events portrayed with vivid immediacy, but it’s distracting to have the otherwise evenly paced story slowed down to reflect on a moment’s significance. Less incongruous are the occasional departures to Chung-Man’s life in the present. The character appears to show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder; these passages demonstrate that while he lived through the war only briefly, he has lived with it for the rest of his life.