What Is Written On The Tongue is a dual time story with a Dutch theme. This is the story of Sam, the teenage son of a farmer in occupied Holland, safe under the noses of the Germans each time they were looking for workers – or taking prisoners – because they had made his father’s barns a regional HQ.
It is also the story of a later Sam, now a soldier with the Dutch army sent to take back Colonial Java after the end of Japanese occupation.
The narrative dots back and forth between the two time lines. In the earlier part, Sam’s father uses his horse and cart to fetch deliveries from the train for the Germans. Sam’s older brother Leo is a miner and during one of the miner’s strikes, Leo is taken prisoner.
As the story unfolds we learn more about Sam’s family; his two sisters, his father and how they all did what they had to just to survive.
Java is another war zone, with rebels, communists and the Dutch all fighting. Sam starts to question everything: soldiers following orders, villagers starving, everyone living in fear; how is this different from what he left behind in Europe?
This was an interesting book, as it questions the principles of war, the morals of a soldier and how each person might try to live by what they believe is right. Apart from Sam there are some interesting secondary characters and I thought that the author portrayed them well. I haven’t read much about life in Dutch occupied lands during the war or from their colonisation, so this book gave me much to think about. I thought that the two timelines worked well, and certainly gave a diverse picture of war and oppression.
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For readers of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a transportive historical novel about finding morality in the throes of war and colonization Released from Nazi forced labor as World War II ends, 20-year-old Sam is quickly drafted and sent to the island of Java to help regain control of the colony. But the Indonesian independence movement is far ahead of the Dutch, and Sam is thrown into a guerilla war, his loyalties challenged when his squad commits atrocities reminiscent of those he suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Sam falls in love with both Sari and the beautiful island she calls home, but as he loses friends to sniper fire and jungle malady, he also loses sight of what he wants most — to be a good man.