Author: Richard Flanagan, 2014.
Genre: Period Fiction. 1840s Asia/Australia. War.
Other Details: Hardback. 448 pages.
Taking its title from one of the most famous books in Japanese literature, written by the great haiku poet Basho, Flanagan’s novel has as its heart one of the most infamous episodes of Japanese history, the construction of the Thailand-Burma Death Railway in World War II. In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the 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. - synopsis from Man Booker website.
This powerful multi-layered novel surprised me as given the subject matter I did not expect to be drawn so deeply into its narrative. It deals with the difficult subject of POWs held by the Japanese during WWII in the Pacific. As a result there are many scenes that were hard to read and yet it was so vital to the story that these be as raw as they were. While it would have been easy to demonize the Japanese in charge of the camp Flanagan presents them as bound to a code of honour and a tradition that is very different to that of their prisoners. It does not lessen the cruelty that is portrayed but places it in context.
The novel has quite a traditional structure though it does jump about in time some, chronicling Dorrigo Evans' life in Australia before and after the war as well as the post-war lives of a few of the Japanese and Korean prison guards. Certainly it has the qualities I would consider worthy of a prestigious literary award such as the Man Booker though its accessibility and lack of experimental style may go against current trends in judging such awards.
However, whatever the outcome I felt this was the strongest of the three novels I have read so far on the 2014 short-list. The writing is beautiful even when dealing with the horrors of the POW camp and the love story at the novel's heart was deeply moving. A novel that will remain with me for some time.