Bitter Eden is different to most books set during WWI or WWII that I have read. Of those books, the majority were set in Europe, mostly France and often from the perspective of a young British soldier. While these stories were poignant and offered an insight into parts of history the textbooks don’t feature, Bitter Eden felt like a new side to the story. Explicitly describing the experiences in a prisoner of war camp, Afrika’s novel explores the effects long-term imprisonment has on a person. Social dynamics and close relationships develop under this unique set of circumstances.
Bitter Eden is told from the perspective of Tom Smith, a South African soldier captured in North Africa and imprisoned in several European camps. He reluctantly allows Douglas, another prisoner, to become his ally despite being finding his company initially irksome and the two share a symbiotic relationship. Douglas cares for Tom, and to some degree Tom protects Douglas an provides him a familiar anchor in a hostile environment. As they begin to work together, creating a laundry service in exchange for cigarettes and Red Cross supplies, Tom begins to appreciate Douglas and they settle into a profitable partnership. The tenuous harmony in their relationship is shaken by Tom’s friendship with Danny, a British boxer who has also been captured. Both Douglas and Danny make their contempt for each other known, and Tom finds himself uncomfortably between the two.
Tom connects with Danny in a way he doesn’t with Douglas. They both have abusive fathers and are conscious of keeping their emotions hidden. To Tom, Danny represents traditional masculine values, and despite becoming more open-minded after participating in plays held in the prison, under the direction of Tony, a prisoner who is openly gay, he still struggles with his identity and what his relationship with Danny might signify. It’s something he doesn’t fully come to terms with. There is a sense that the pressure to appear strong leaves prisoners isolated and alone.
The harsh environment reveals the thin line between civility and animal desperation. When food is short and basic human needs are deprived, the prisoners take extreme measures to survive. Isolated from the war, their lives are reduced to guards, fences and camp life. They are only concerned with their own survival. But there are moments of hope, a sense that despite everything they are able to search for beauty and find it, even in dire circumstances. One night, they wake and clamber out of bed to listen to a nightingale sing, and that delicately peaceful moment is a perfect example of how their shared experience draws them together, even when it is so easy to be pulled apart.