The Water Beetles: OSI Clinic manager’s debut novel explores the traumas of war

Michael Kaan, manager of the Operational Stress Injuries Clinic at Deer Lodge Centre, has received international critical acclaim for his first novel. The Water Beetles (Goose Lane Editions) tells the story of 12-year-old Chung-Man, who lives a life of luxury with his family in Hong Kong until the Japanese invade in 1941.

Written in hauntingly restrained prose, the novel follows Chung-Man’s journey to evade capture, survive, and learn to live with a self that has become divided.

Many of Chung-Man’s experiences are derived from the personal memoirs of Kaan’s father, who passed away in 2006. Like Chung-Man, David Kaan fled with family members into rural China when Japanese forces invaded Hong Kong.

“I didn’t know much about his experiences because he didn’t talk about them,” says Kaan. “When I read them I realized they would make a great story.”

In order to make the story function as a gripping literary work, however, Kaan had to reshape the material and the characters considerably. At the insistence of his editor, he wove in scenes of Chung-Man as an adult. “Those really helped give some balance to the character and a life-long perspective on the impact of what he went through. This let me explore how people can be marked for life by their experiences in different and sometimes surprising ways, long before therapy was readily available for people who’ve gone through trauma.”

As the manager of the OSI Clinic, which treats military personnel, veterans and their families who are suffering from post-traumatic stress and its effects, Kaan is no stranger to trauma. Nevertheless, he says his day job didn’t inform his writing to any great degree. “This book is about civilians who are victims of war. It’s about what happens in their backyards and their homes, when there’s nowhere else to go.”

Since its publication in April, The Water Beetles has received rave reviews from critics. It was also nominated for a prestigious Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction—an impressive debut for Kaan, who is already at work on his next book, another historical novel.