Wednesday, November 04, 2015

What We're Reading: World War II Fiction

In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, ambitious and talented Richard Flanagan tells the story of a group of Australian prisoners of war forced by their Japanese captors to build the Burma-Siam Railway in 1943. The story centers around Dorrigo Evans, a Tasmanian-born doctor whose passionate affair with Amy Mulvaney, who also happens to be his uncle’s wife, is interrupted by the war. Shortly after his deployment, his division is forced to surrender to the Japanese at the fall of Singapore, and suffers many hardships as slave laborers working on the railway, a feat that the Europeans thought impossible for many years. But Japan sees the railway as strategically necessary to supply their Burmese forces, and drives its slave laborers to build the railway in a very short time, led by Major Nakamura, Lieutenant Fukuhara and the Korean guard nicknamed the Goanna by the prisoners. Dorrigo Evans finds himself responsible for these unfortunate, tortured men like Darky Gardiner, Jack Rainbow, and Jimmy Bigelow, who find themselves struggling to remain human amidst inhumane conditions.

Ronsi, Burma. c. 1943. Australian and British prisoners of war (POWs) laying track on the Burma-Thailand railway. The POWs working on the railway in Burma were all members of A Force, designated by ...

This book was one of the hardest and most worthwhile books I read this year. It is brutal and beautiful and uncomfortable. Richard Flanagan does not spare the reader in his explicit descriptions of violence, brutality, and pain, but without these the story would not be the same. While mostly told from the point of view of Dorrigo Evans, who survives as a war hero and later leads a successful medical career (albeit never recovering his peace of mind), there are stories of those who lost their lives and were treated violently for no reason. Flanagan does a great job of telling each of their stories and giving back some of the individuality and humanity that were so casually taken from them. The book also goes into the minds of the Japanese officers, which might help the reader understand the philosophy of the Japanese Empire and its soldiers, but not sympathize with them. In an interview with The Guardian newspaper, Richard Flanagan said that his father was a POW sent to work on the Death Railway, and many of his stories were an inspiration for this book.

The writing is dark, complex, and lyrical, and eases the harshness of the subject matter. Flanagan's writing flows like poetry despite the cruel realities it describes. The Narrow Road to the Deep North won several literary awards, including the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

Burbank Public Library has two copies of this book available for checkout.

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