We follow Dorrigo Evans, a doctor from Tasmania, as he enters adulthood and is sent off to World War II. While Dorrigo struggles to make sense of his personal life at home in Australia, he finds himself the endlessly stoic leader (“big fella”) among the Australian Prisoners of War being driven to death to build the Thailand-Burma railway by the Japanese.
Afterwards and back in Australia, Dorrigo is a celebrated war hero. Just as he felt like a fraud when leading the men in the camp, so too does he feel like one now. He seems to have lost the true love of his life—his uncle’s wife Amy with whom he had an affair before the war—and has settled for an unhappy marriage from which he escapes through serial, meaningless affairs.
What makes the book so brilliant is that it covers off so many angles. You will come away with images of the horror of the POW camp seared into your brain. Yet Flanagan takes his story to post-war Japan and the war crimes trials and attempts—without excusing them—to provide some understanding of how the Japanese and Korean guards found themselves in that camp, committing those atrocities.
The dialogue, particularly between Australians, is spot on (and made me extremely homesick). Flanagan captures the older generation of Australian banter. As young Australians we hear a lot about “mateship”—our national character—but Flanagan has painted a picture of the conditions, suffering and resilience that forged that mythical bond.
My favourite parts of the book—the ones I photographed to come back to later—are its observations on life, love, and family.
In the end all that was left was the heat and the clouds of rain, and insects and birds and animals and vegetation that neither knew nor cared. Humans are only one of the many things, and all these things long to live, and the highest form of living is freedom: a man to be a man, a cloud to be a cloud, bamboo to be bamboo.
The highest form of living is freedom.
Spoken by the widow of Jack Rainbow:
I have a friend in Fern Tree who teaches piano. Very musical, she is. I’m tone deaf myself. But one day she was telling me how every room has a note. You just have to find it. She started warbling away, up and down. And suddenly one note came back to us, just bounced back off the walls and rose from the floor and filled the place with this perfect hum. This beautiful sound. Like you’ve thrown a plum and an orchard comes back at you. You wouldn’t believe it Mr Evans. These two completely different things, a note and a room, finding each other. It sounded…right. Am I being ridiculous? Do you think that’s what we mean by love, Mr Evans?
The brewery truck driver on the randomness of our endowments in life:
Maybe we just get given our faces, our lives, our fates, our happiness and unhappiness. Some get a lot, some bugger all. And love the same. Like different glass sizes for beer. You get a lot, you get bugger all, you drink it and it’s gone. You know it and then you don’t know it. Maybe we don’t control any of it. No one makes love like they make a wall or a house. They catch it like a cold. It makes them miserable and then it passes, and pretending otherwise it the road to hell.
Some get a lot, some bugger all.
…that special closeness that siblings sometimes have. It was an ease of company that allows for most things to be unsaid, for awkwardness and error to be entirely unimportant, and for that strange sense of a mysterious shared soul to be expressed through the most trivial of small talk. If beyond their blood relation they had almost nothing in common, Dorrigo Evans still increasingly felt with Tom that he was but one aspect of a larger thing, of which his brother was another, different but complementary part, and their meetings were not so much an assertion of self as welcome dissolution of it in each other.
And in the back seat the three now silent, soot-smeared children absorbed it all—the chocking creosote stench, the roar of the wind and flame, the wild rocking of a car being driven that hard, the heat, the emotion so raw and exposed it was like butchered flesh; the tormented, hopeless feeling of two people who lived together in a love not yet love, not yet not; an unshared life shared; a conspiracy of affections, illnesses, tragedies, jokes and labour; a marriage—the strange, terrible, neverendingness of human beings.
An unshared life shared; a conspiracy of affections.