Jim first hears about the beginning of the war in August while he’s in Brisbane to buy new boots. Coming out of the shoe shop, he senses a change in the air. “War! War!” the newsboys shout on the streets. For the most part, the small city is overtaken by a sense of excitement, though some people aren’t so thrilled. “A bad business,” one man says to him, “a catastrophe. Madness! I’m a Swede.” Jim merely listens, wondering what it means to be a “Swede.” Later, he listens to a young woman speak patriotically about the honor of joining the military. She says that she would certainly sign up if she were a man. “It’s an opportunity,” she notes with a certain hint of condescension regarding Jim’s reluctance. When he looks out at the streets and sees young people celebrating and drinking, he feels “panicky.”
The extent to which Jim has led a sheltered life becomes especially apparent when news of World War I reaches Australia. He knows so little about what lies beyond his small existence that he doesn’t even understand what it means to be a Swede. At the same time, though, he also shows a certain maturity that his contemporaries don’t possess. While they celebrate news of the war, he feels “panicky” and unsettled. This, it seems, is a more appropriate response, considering war is ghastly and violent. As such, Malouf presents Jim as a naive young man who is also intuitively mature, a combination that renders him a complex and dynamic character.
Jim senses that the war will eventually claim everybody, “as if the ground before him, that had only minutes ago stretched away to a clear future, had suddenly tilted in the direction of Europe, in the direction of events, and they were all now on a dangerous slope.” When he goes to a bar in Brisbane, Jim sees a group of “youths” drinking heavily and acting as if they’re already part of a “company or platoon,” since they’ve just signed up for the military. Later that night, a young woman named Connie assumes that Jim, too, will be signing up. Because of this, she decides to take him home to give him “something to remember” before he has to zoom off to “the other side of the world.”
Jim’s feeling that the ground is going to “tilt” in “the direction of Europe” shows his sensitivity to change. Having led a tranquil life until now, he is sorely alive to how the war is going to affect everything he has ever known. Of course, his contemporaries are also able to feel this sense of imminent change, but they rejoice at the idea. Jim, on the other hand, is reticent to embrace this transformation.
Just before Connie and Jim go into her house, a sound of breaking glass rises in the streets, where there’s a rowdy group of young people. “Abos!” Connie says. Failing to understand her, Jim simply stands there and gazes into the chaos. Before he follows Connie inside, he sees a man in a white shirt stumble away from the crowd with both hands on his face, blood dripping from his palms. “Aren’t you coming in then?” Connie calls.
In this scene, Jim is exposed to violence for the first time. The blood dripping down the man’s hands and—presumably—onto his white shirt represents the violence to come. And though Jim finds himself horrifically transfixed, Connie treats the situation as trivial and ordinary, trying to explain that a group of indigenous Australians called Aboriginals is responsible for the violence. There is, of course, no indication that this is actually the case, and this suggests that Connie is even more naïve than Jim, since she pretends to understand a situation that, in reality, she doesn’t. Instead of trying to figure out what has happened, she quickly dismisses the situation by naming a false enemy, thereby enabling herself to ignore the fact that her own community has plunged into chaos. Jim, on the other hand, seems cognizant of the fact that this moment of violence is directly related to the war—yet another indication that he understands (on some level) the extent to which the war will change life all over the world.
Later that night, Jim walks back into the streets feeling “pleased with himself” after having had sex with Connie. When he returns to the boarding house where he’s to spend the night, he finds himself unable to sleep because of a loud procession in the streets. This procession made up of young men in uniforms, “a group of naval ensigns” who have just joined the military. As he lies in bed and listens to them sing, he wonders if “this is what it will be like from now on” and whether he will get used to it. The next morning, he returns to the swampland, where Miss Harcourt asks if anything remarkable is “going on in Brisbane.” “Well,” he replies, “you know. The war. Not much otherwise.” For a moment she looks concerned, but she doesn’t ask if he’ll join the military.
Once again, Jim’s response to the news of World War I differs from his contemporaries’ jubilant reactions. While they party through the night and sing boisterous songs, he lies awake and worries about how his life—and the world—is about to change. “Will I get used to it?” he wonders, demonstrating his reluctance to embrace transformation.