I liked this book but I almost didn’t make it to the end. It is about Dorrigo Evans, a Tasmanian doctor who survives his experience as a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp during the second world war. The novel recounts the struggle and the horror of the camps and how the prisoners were forced to work building the Burmese railway. The human suffering described in this book is extreme and reading it against a backdrop of depressing post-Brexit Britain, where Donald Trump may become the next president of the United States and every time I turn on the news there is a new tragedy or atrocity, I could hardly bear to read anymore.
But I am glad that I read to the end. Flanagan captures what makes us human through the way he writes. The pain and the grief, but also moments of joy and humour. He writes about the bravery and sacrifice but not in a way that glorifies something that should never be glorified. His writing feels authentic. I liked that he writes about what happens to the characters after they come back from the war – not just the prisoners, but some of the Japanese guards too. As in some ways, their lives after the war are more important – did they re-assimilate back into the society they left behind?
It is not just a book about war, it is also a love story – although admittedly a very sad one. Before the war takes Dorrigo away from his life in Australia, he begins an affair with his Uncle’s young wife, Amy. Their relationship is beautiful and imperfect and very real. Yet after the war, he never returns to her. Instead he marries Ella, the girl who he was promised to and who has faithfully waited for him. It seems as though he watches himself from afar as he is married to her and they begin their life together, and he is never truly present. He loves her but never in the way he loved Amy.
I really liked Dorrigo’s character, despite his terrible infidelity to his wife, Ella. His lack of arrogance and his unassuming nature is refreshing. His disbelief at the way he slowly gains influence and fame towards the latter end of his life seems something relatable – not because I have experienced either of those things (!) but because it feels like the realisation you have when you leave childhood: that being a ‘grown-up’ doesn’t mean that you know what you’re doing!
This is an intense book. Reading it feels like swimming when your muscles start to ache and you don’t know how much longer you can keep going and it is all you can do just to keep your head above the water. It is a hugely powerful book with all the extremes of human emotion. It is also very good. I just think it should come with a warning: approach with caution!