The Way of a Boy: A Memoir of Java by Ernest Hillen Viking $255 ERNEST Hillen's memories of Java are dominated by the cruelty of the wartime Japanese. The latter years of his childhood were spent in four different war camps in the 1940s, forcing him to learn the harsh lessons of adulthood early. The book is at times painful to read not only because of the terrible conditions it describes but because the author has written it as though it is narrated by a child. The horrors are all the more convincing and troubling when conveyed in the simple, frank and matter of fact fashion that children tend to adopt. But if you fall into the trap of believing it to be a work of fiction, the photographs and drawings bring home the reality all the more dramatically. The reader is left in awe of the bravery, endurance and solidarity of which humans are capable as well as the brutality, evil and divisiveness they can inflict. Ernest and his family are separated by the Japanese: his Dutch father is taken to one camp; he, his mother and his brother to another. In an unsentimental fashion, the book chronicles loss after loss. First, his brother Jerry is taken to another camp; then friends are lost as the prisoners are moved around; one dies after eating pig food poisonous to humans. During his physical and mental odyssey, the young Ernest learns that nothing is permanent. But when he feels like despairing he is buoyed up by the spirits of the women around him - his mother, her friends and their daughters. Ankie, on whom he has a crush, tells him ''without love we die'' in response to his belief they would always be prisoners. Cabaret artiste Corry Vonk, despite illness and hunger, puts on regular entertainment for the women and helps them temporarily forget the misery of their plight. The vindictiveness of captors such as the Nazis and Japanese soldiers towards those under their control has been well-documented but it never fails to shock. A number of incidents in this book bring home the depths to which humans can be reduced. A train journey from one camp to another takes 20 hours in the sweltering and claustrophobic heat. Old people, the sick and young children crammed together like cattle are desperate for water but none is given. At the station, where Indonesians have provided water in buckets, Japanese guards casually kick them over. At the end of the journey, with equal indifference, they lay out the bodies of those who failed to survive. Ernest Hillen, the young boy, is by now immune to normal human emotion. His main concern is his physical thirst, his fear of being crushed by those around him and the stench of the carriage. When liberation by the Allies finally happens, Ernest finds himself crying at unexpected moments. The tension that has been welling inside him is finally released, but he would never feel secure again. What horrors he had endured in his short life were enough to last a lifetime. As he says in the book's epilogue: ''Memory is finally all we own.'' Tragically in his case, that is perhaps all too true.