Dorrigo Evans is the one who keeps the other prisoners of war in the Japanese camp sane, while they labour in wretched conditions to build an impossible railway. He leads them, champions them – fights desperately to curb the death and disease, brutality and despair. When he finally returns to Australia he is lauded as a hero, but finds little to fill the emptiness he feels – perhaps most affectingly the loss of the love of his life, his uncle’s wife Amy.
This was an extremely clever, extremely well written book. I read it on my holiday, so a few weeks ago now, but I’ve still not made my mind up about how the different elements fit together and whether there is any sort of conclusion you can come to. I hope not, as I think that would be simplistic for the complexities at play in Evans’ – and the other characters portrayed – lives. But this is a magnificent interplay of war, weakness, love, culture, brotherhood, cruelty, purpose, hardship – and more, weaving an intricate and intriguing picture of humanity.
Perhaps my favourite storyline was that of Evans’ incredible rise to heroism in the prisoner of war camps contrasted to his seeming to fall apart afterwards. We see him at all different stages of his journey; as a young man in love, a hardened army doctor trying to perform impossible surgery and as a disillusioned and dissatisfied womaniser. The best is pulled from him in difficult circumstances but afterwards he is left empty.
The timelines of the book are told at all different stages; the story is revealed to us gradually and not chronologically, making gradual sense of events as we learn more about what happened before and after them. It worked well; I was only occasionally confused and it invited questions as to how the different strands of the story impacted each other. In particular there was one pivotal day that was referenced through the book, and events on that day gradually revealed some of the reasons that it might have happened that way.
I also enjoyed the different perspectives we were shown; of Amy and of some of the Japanese army in charge of the camp, and of the other Australian soldiers. These broadened the scope of the book into common experience, as well as providing different aspects and viewpoints on Dorrigo’s story. We got to inspect character’s motivations, cultures and mindsets in detail; which for me was particular illuminating in the case of the Japanese officer.
This book is marvellous. It’s pretty heavy, and it was perhaps a mistake to read it on holiday, but totally intriguing and very full. I could say so much more about this book, but you’re going to have to read it for yourself.