Forever after, there were for them only two sorts of men: the men who were on the Line, and the rest of humanity, who were not. In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Burma Death Railway, surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his love affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier. Struggling to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from beatings, he receives a letter that will change his life forever. Hailed as a masterpiece, Richard Flanagan’s epic novel tells the unforgettable story of one man’s reckoning with the truth.
I bought this book four years ago, when it won the Man Booker Prize and it had been sitting on my shelf, silently judging me for not picking it up. To be honest, I was a bit intimidated. I was interested in the subject matter but also scared because this was a part of the Second World War that I had no knowledge of. I’m so used to reading books about the war set in Belgium, France, The Netherlands or Britain, but if this book has taught me anything, it’s that I should definitely read more internationally.
So about the book, we follow Dorrigo Evans in a series of fragments throughout his life. The two main chunks of story are about him falling in love with Amy (who turns out to be his uncle’s wife) and his time at a Japanese POW camp where he tends to his fellow prisoners as the camp doctor.
Dorrigo is not a hero, although people elevate him to that status when he returns from the war. He’s extremely flawed and I did not like him at first but then you get to know him and you see that he’s just human and humans make mistakes. I never ended up liking him but I accepted him and agree that he’s a brilliant main character.
His affair with Amy was both infuriating and breathtaking. Her part of the conversation is about being trapped in a life she doesn’t really want to live and making decisions for ‘the greater good’. His is side about an all-consuming passion that only burns brighter as distance and war comes between them. (The way this part of the story ended made me want to throw the book out the window.)
Other than Dorrigo, we also follow a number of side-characters and what I found incredibly impressive was how Richard Flanagan manages to let you get to know these people in such a small amount of text. We don’t just get a glimpse of the lives (and deaths) of other prisoners but also of the camp guards. Nothing here is black or white. Not all prisoners are good and not all the guards are evil. Although you do want to sometimes yell at them, or throw things…
There’s a chapter near the end where a Japanese doctor is explaining why he never wears a white coat. It’s something that will stay with me forever. Not only his story but also the response of the person he’s telling his story to. The doctor, like most Japanese soldiers, followed the ideology of the Emperor blindly, but what happened in his story made him think about what it was they were actually doing. After the war, he saw that this ideology was wrong. The other person in the conversation never comes to that conclusion. He never sees the wrongness.
I could keep going on about all the ways in which this book blew me away but I want to end it here. It was brutal and honest and at some points even beautiful. I’m glad that I finally decided to read it and am convinced that you’ll be seeing it on my list of favourite books at the end of the year.
If you haven’t read it yet, you should definitely consider picking it up.