Winner of the 2014 Booker, this book is marvellous. I haven’t read anything else of Richard Flanagan’s, but after reading this, I’m excited to read his other works.
It’s always difficult as an ‘amateur’ reading a prize winner because you never know how it compares to the runners-up. In other words what set the winning book apart from the competition. If the press can be believed, this year’s winner was significantly better than the next best entry.
The book tells the story of Dorrigo Evans, born into a working class Tasmanian rural settlement around the time of World War One. He ends up going to university to study medicine, but then along comes World War Two and he finds himself enlisted. Serving in the Middle East, he ends up in Singapore and is captured as part of the surrender. The book spends a long time describing his time in a Japanese POW camp, where POWs are put to work on construction of the infamous Burma railway: while the book is fiction, it is based on historical events. Evans’ rank means he is spared some of the backbreaking physical hardship, but he is not spared the starvation, the exposure to disease or the overall psychological horror of the experience.
There are some very confronting scenes described in the POW camp, including the beating to death of one of the POWs at the hands of the Japanese, and Evans’ performing surgery on another prisoner on a makeshift operating table without any anaesthetic. These are balanced against some stunningly written scenes towards the end of the book.
The Burma railway is a metaphor for how we often live our lives according to a plan, like we’re on rails, but then something massive (like war) comes along and shocks us off that rail onto a different one. The title of the book comes from a Japanese book of the same name, revealed in a discussion between two Japanese army officers in the POW camp. According to the officers, it “summed up in one book the genius of the Japanese spirit”. And in Flanagan’s hands, the narrow road is clearly the railway itself.
I wouldn’t suggest from the plot outline above that this book is simple. It isn’t. There are storylines that weave in and out of each other, and the reader is constantly surprised. This book is described so well, and the prose was such that I could vividly picture most scenes. It isn’t often I think this, but I hope someone makes a good film adaptation of this book.