Recommendation: Bloated but sporadically beautiful
Where to read: Maybe not on a beach holiday
Read with: A good old VB, or some Tasmanian whisky if you can get your hands on it
In brief: I am always inclined to applaud authors who take on the non-Western front aspects of WWI and WWII and yet I did struggle with this. It aspires to great profundity and tragedy but lapses into cliché and bathos a little too frequently.
This is the perfect demonstration of the fact that great ambition can miscarry – you can see where he was going with this and what he was aiming for, but he misses the mark too often and in too many respects. The result, unfortunately, is an overblown saga in dire need of a solid edit.
First for the good – the middle 200 or so pages, which primarily deal with the experiences of Australian POWs working on the Burma railway, are heartrending and exceptionally well done. There has been some valid criticism of Flanagan’s portrayal of the railway as primarily built by (white) POWs rather than slave labour from across Japanese-occupied Southeast Asia but, in fairness, I don’t think he ever makes a claim to universality or casts the narrative beyond the one camp his characters find themselves in. In that camp, however, he offers a brutal portrait of the labour conditions, the complete lack of sanitation and the starvation rations. Against that background, he tells the stories of a number of different men trying to survive (or simply cope) in any way they can. Some act in impossibly noble ways, others muddle along trying to help the odd mate when possible, and others are at their worst. Flanagan for the most part writes from a place of empathy, asking for understanding rather than judgment and implicitly asking the reader to consider how noble they would really be in the same circumstances.
The bigger issue is that those 200 pages get lost in a clumsy attempt at “I’m writing a big, sweeping novel because I want to make a profound point about life”. For a start, the choice to focus on Dorrigo Evans as the main character is unfortunate – he is an interesting figure to the extent that he demonstrates one way of responding to horrendous conditions, the inhumanity of the railway and one way of coping afterwards, but others are equally interesting and their stories compelling. Had the novel focused on the set of stories and characters developed in the middle of the novel, tracking them from captivity through the camps to the death of one of the characters and then a final chapter on their lives afterwards, I would have been very depressed but also very impressed. Unfortunately, it would probably also have made it a “war novel” rather a “magnum opus” and this attempt to weave a broader story is where the problems arise.
Evans’ history of philandering feels like a gratuitous way of making highlighting the foibles in a war hero and the “great love story” which allegedly provides the emotional heart of the novel is frankly unromantic. The rest of the subplots are similarly more-is-more, particularly the late novel revelation about the parentage of one of the other POWs. It could have been affecting, and should have had deep resonance given Australia’s racial history, but it reads instead as a trite attempt to pack some more “core Australian themes” into the novel. It also gets lost in the middle of a car chase with a bushfire, because apparently an action scene was needed to round out the last 30 pages and again, you have to get as much of the “Australian experience” into the novel as possible.
To add more into the mix, Flanagan makes a laudable attempt to add faces and inner lives (and meth addiction) to the Australians’ Japanese and Korean captors, drawing out the power dynamics and lack of autonomy in those relationships and complex questions of culpability. Parts of this, such as the examination of self-righteousness and the ways in which behaviours can be rationalised and reconciled with self-image, are fantastically done however there are some solid chunks which rightly or wrongly feel a bit orientalist. From my perspective, the best part of it is the skewering of the expediency and hypocrisy of some of the post-war war crimes trials and the total lack of reckoning for many of the very senior figures involved.
All in all, I’d like to say that the good outweighed the unnecessary enough to justify reading it, but unless you’re a fast reader with a spare weekend and a penchant for feeling miserable or you’ve made it a mission to read Booker winners, I’d put this on the skip pile.