I HAVE LONG been a fan of Tasmanian novelist Flanagan’s flair for bringing little-told stories of humanity, abomination and injustice to life. With the deft touch of a portrait painter, he is able to capture the essence of a protagonist through a few choice words, fixing his characters in the readers’ minds long after the final page is turned.
And now he casts his powerful pen towards the horrors of the building of the Thai-Burma railway – a story he says he always knew he had to tell. Flanagan’s father was a prisoner of war who survived the atrocity that saw the deaths of anything between 50,000 and 200,000 people. His father died on the day that the novel was finished.
The narrative lurches between present and past, the jumps reflecting the patchy memory of the main character, Dorrigo Evans. This celebrated, yet reluctant war hero was a surgeon who found himself the leader of a thousand men. Every day he must choose enough men to meet Major Nakamura’s work quotas – and every day more men die.
As we experience life in the camp, through vivid descriptions of utter exhaustion, starvation, beatings, cholera, ulcers and craziness, it strikes me that part of Flanagan’s dark magic is to force the reader to like and care about the characters – like the optimistic, quick fingered geezer Darky Gardener – and then to feel their suffering.
Another of the book’s many feats of perspective is to reflect the point of view of the prison guards with neither forgiveness nor condemnation.
And against the backdrop of war, Flanagan also weaves a story of love. Dorrigo, who we know as a womaniser from the start of the book, is in love with his uncle’s wife.
It is not an easy book to read, but one that I would recommend. Named after one of Japan’s classic poems, this ambitious, harrowing and multifaceted book gives form to the horrors of war and the guilt of those that survive.
By Elizabeth Hastings