Richard Flanagan’s sixth novel was selected by one of our book clubbers for our monthly read, months before it was included in the 2014 Man Booker Longlist – let alone announced as the winner of the prestigious award. With foresight, our book clubber wrote: “I’m choosing this novel because I think it’s destined to become an Australian classic.” How right she was!
To be honest though, only half the group managed to finish the book – some found it too difficult to get into, and others found the subject matter too graphic. But it’s worth persevering. This beautifully written and heart-wrenching novel tells the story of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian army surgeon who experiences the harsh cruelties of a Japanese POW camp during WWII. Flanagan’s descriptions of life on the Thai-Burma death railway are detailed and horrific, describing death in its many forms: cholera, starvation and beatings.
But much-needed relief is provided through the structure of the novel, which moves between the harrowing present, and Dorrigo’s life before the war, in Adelaide, when he was embroiled in a haunting love affair with his uncle’s younger wife. I physically breathed a sigh of relief whenever the story flashed back to life in Adelaide, for a mental break from the atrocities of war.
While there are many books about war, Flanagan’s novel is distinct in the way it draws the reader into the minds and experiences of the Japanese soldiers, as well as the Australian Prisoners Of War. For me, this really took the novel to another level. What could have become an ‘us versus them’ story is instead a gripping, insightful account of a harrowing part of our nation’s history, and a must-read for every Australian who is determined to honour the motto “lest we forget”.