By Richard Flanagan, read by David Atlas – This epic tale from a Tasmanian author won the 2015 Man Booker Prize. It centers on the life of Dorrigo Evans, a young surgeon, before, during, and after World War II, when he eventually becomes regarded as an Australian war hero.
A notorious womanizer in later life, Dorrigo can never recapture his early passion for Amy, the young wife of his uncle, and their lost love. Their affair was cut short when he received his orders to ship out and he had no chance to say good-bye to her then, or ever, because of two lies.
During the war, his unit is captured by the Japanese. Its members are forced, despite illness, injury, starvation, and dangerously impossible conditions to work on a railway “for the Emperor,” the infamous Thailand-Burma Death Railway. An estimated 112,000 Asian forced laborers and Allied prisoners of war died during its construction. If you’ve seen The Bridge on the River Kwai, you have an inkling. Flanagan’s own father was a survivor of the Death Railway and died the day Richard told him this novel was finally finished. “He trusted me not to get his story wrong,” Flanagan has said.
Because Dorrigo is a surgeon and an officer, the Japanese don’t require him to work on the construction, but he is plenty busy managing the desperately ill and dying men in his care.
After the war, the narrative takes a detour to tell us the fate of several characters from the camp—its head man, Major Nakamura; the reviled Korean contract guard the prisoners called the Goanna; and a group of ex-prisoners who have an alcohol-fueled rendezvous in memory of one of their fallen.
The climactic (or climatic, given its meteorological link) section of the book involves Dorrigo’s attempts to rescue his wife and children from the devastating fires overtaking a large swath of Tasmania near the capital of Hobart, another real-life event that took place in 1967.
Even though the book is described as “a love story unfolding over half a century,” I thought Flanagan’s best, most moving writing involved the prisoner of war camp. His detailed portrayals of several of the men, especially one named Darky Gardiner, are vivid and compelling. The author did a service in trying to explain the inexplicable when he also probed the character of the camp overlords.
Americans generally know less about World War II’s Pacific Theater than events in Europe, though it was no less horrifying. Some readers may be turned off by the violence of the book, but it’s a war story as well as a romance, and war is not romantic. Stick with it, and you’ll have an indelible picture of the suffering inflicted and endured. Atlas’s narration is straightforward and true.
The book’s title—a metaphor for the railway itself—comes from a famous book by Japanese poet Bashō, which Flanagan’s character Colonel Kota (a beheading expert) says “sums up in one book the genius of the Japanese spirit.” Flanagan explained in an excellent interview in The Telegraph, “I wanted to use what was most beautiful and extraordinary in their culture in writing a book about what was most terrible, because I thought that might liberate me from judgment. And it did help me.”