The legendary Australian ship's cat
who survived the sinking of HMAS Perth
and the Thai-Burma Railway
Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2020
Paperback 344pp RRP 29.99
Reviewer: Kevan Sanderson, November 2020
Red Lead was the ship’s cat on the first HMAS Perth which was sunk in 1942 during the Battle of Sunda Strait. Fewer than half of Perth’s crew survived, but Red Lead was amongst them. Roland Perry’s historical fiction tells the story of Red Lead and her primary carer, Dan Bolt; from joining HMAS Perth through sinking, capture, imprisonment on Java, in Changi and on the Burma railway. The final chapter summarises their lives after the war until their deaths in1965 and1982 respectively. Red Lead was 24 when she died.
Roland Perry’s book masquerades as a military history book in which role it misses badly. As a history the book lacks substance. Historical characters and events are described as if from afar with no real depth or analysis. A number of photographs are included, several of which have appeared in other publications. Most of them are of locations, people or ships that are the background, or simply tangential to the story. The photographs add little and one feels they have only been included to camouflage the book as a serious history.
It is first and foremost a fiction. Perry has woven a tale of Red Lead amongst historical events, places and characters, drawing on a wealth of anecdotes, biographies and histories which are listed in the bibliography. Red Lead and Bolt have many adventures but the story, while interesting, lacks excitement and suspense. It is hard to identify or develop interest in the characters, who, with a few exceptions, are caricatures or drawn in scant detail. Disappointingly, there are no pictures of the main characters, including Red Lead herself; the cover does have a picture of a cat, but it is, in fact, not Red Lead.
The story does not flow smoothly because transitions between chapters, and sometimes from section to section within a chapter, are somewhat disjointed. It feels as though the writing has been rushed. Perry’s writing style is simple and unsophisticated, which makes the book an easy, albeit not a compelling read. It is easy to pick up, but just as easy to put down.
In conclusion, it is an extraordinary and ultimately heartwarming story set against the well-worn backdrop of struggle, hardship, misery and brutality that characterised the south-east Asian battleground of the Second World War. I would recommend it for teenagers and young adults or anyone with an interest in animal stories. It may even encourage an interest in serious reading about the period and events of that time and place.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.