Dreaming the Enemy

David Metzenthen

Dreaming the Enemy
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Dreaming the Enemy

David Metzenthen

“I am still moving despite the fact that this dreamed-up bastard Khan walks with me - no, he doesn’t walk with me, he rises up to fire, has my life in his hands, my head in his sights, and that is the image of all images that I have somehow to lose.”

Johnny Shoebridge has just returned from fighting in the jungles of Vietnam. He no longer carries a weapon - only photos of the dead and a dread of the living.

Pursued by a Viet Cong ghost-fighter called Khan, Johnny makes one last stand - knowing that if he cannot lay this spectre to rest, he will remain a prisoner of war for ever.

Drawing on courage, loyalty and love, Johnny tries to find a way back from the nightmare of war to a sense of hope for the future.

A deeply moving exploration of trauma and recovery.

Review

Johnny stares at the screen as a celebrity, watched over by a nearby government official, pulls a number out of a barrel and reads it aloud. Just like that, Johnny’s future is decided. Three months of government-funded training, then off to the killing fields. No, this isn’t The Hunger Games or any other YA dystopia series. This is our past. Not even our deep past; this was less than 50 years ago during the Vietnam War. But Dreaming the Enemy isn’t just a book about conscription.

We are warned at the start that Johnny’s memory is sharp. So sharp it can it ‘follow any bullet fired, any soldier seen … or wound inflicted.’ When Johnny’s PTSD hits and the flashbacks begin, they blend reality, memories and imagination so well we get a tiny glimpse of how disorientating PTSD must be for real sufferers. We also see the way Johnny, as a Vietnam Vet., is treated by his fellow Australians when they find out where he’s been.

Often books about war, whether intentionally or not, glorify it, but Dreaming the Enemy has avoided this trap. Johnny doesn’t daringly rescuing any fellow diggers, there are no heroic battles. Instead, we are inside Johnny’s racing head as he tries to rationalise his time in Vietnam and he is haunted by imaginings of what post-war life might be like for an anonymous Viet Cong he fought, who he thinks of, often, as Khan. We feel Johnny’s distress as he desperately tries to rebuild his sense of self in the aftermath of the decisions made by the shiny-faced men in Canberra who put the gun in his hand and told him to kill.

Dreaming the Enemy is an important book. It helps us to remember things like conscription don’t just belong to the harmless world of YA fiction, and realise we can never again ignore the problems of our returned soldiers, whether we agree with the war they’ve fought in or not.


Dani Solomon works in the Children’s & YA section at Carlton.

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