by Heikki Hietala
365 pages, Dragon International Independent Arts
Review by Bill Kirton
Tulagi Hotel is several books. There’s a love story (two actually), an evocation of air warfare against the Japanese in the South Pacific, a story of growing up in Nebraska, a buddy story, and lots of anecdotes and characters en route, all with their own satisfying completeness. They’re described with restraint and a unifying narrative calmness and held together by the quiet charm and attractiveness of the central character, Jack McGuire. From his days on the family farm and the trauma of the loss of his twin brother, through his time at flying school with its clashes of personality and ego-fuelled conflicts, to his war service and eventual retirement to run the hotel of the title, we share his hopes and disappointments, his exhilarations and despairs.
OK, my crass words are melodramatic, but this is a book which also has heroism as a theme – not in any brutish cinematic way, but in the way Jack confronts enemies in the skies and his own demons as man and boy. He’s basically a gentle man, marked by compassion, a respect for others and for old-fashioned human decency. He’s evoked so skilfully and with such consistency that his presence stays with you when you close the book and you find yourself wondering how he’s getting on, whether the hotel’s thriving and … well, other things which might spoil the ending if I scribbled them here. Don Wheeler, the buddy with whom he shares so many adventures, encapsulates the romanticism and heroism of wartime and acts as a perfect foil for Jack’s less flamboyant approach. It’s in his depiction that we see that strange wartime commingling of exhilaration and futility.
So it’s the sort of book with enough variety, colour, humour and incident to hold the reader throughout. On top of that, though, is the writer’s achievement in his evocation of a whole period when values were so different from our own. I mentioned Jack’s compassion and respect for others and yet, as he targets enemy planes in the wonderfully described dog fights, he seems to reflect little on the fact that, as another pilot is blown out of the sky, it’s another human being he’s destroying. I’m not suggesting callousness on his part – it’s just the way things were, and Heikki Hietala has captured the strange ethos of aerial warfare and the people for whom it was a daily reality. The language they speak is different, the constant possibility (probability?) of death is acknowledged but subjugated to a determination to make sure they never waste the moments of their own living. The nobility of their actions isn’t artificial, it’s based in the knowledge that they’re fighting for things in which they believe. I’ve no idea how Hietala achieved this, but everything – the vocabulary, the way in which relationships are articulated, the bonds between men as well as between men and their machines – is all part of a consistent presentation of a specific era with recognisable values and purposes.
This is clearly a book which realises the author’s specific vision. He gives you excitement, pathos, tenderness, love, nostalgia, beauty and a set of characters that, even in the sadness of some of the episodes, convey the essential resilience and value of human beings.