This is the 2014 Booker Prize winner, and one of the first books I paid attention to through the process of the award. Most years I’ve either missed it or looked back on it. It has seemed through that process and through my reading to be a very suitable winner both for that year and in general.
It’s a good novel, and it’s a really powerful reading experience in a lot of ways. It is not inspiring, uplifting, invigorating, or any of the other kinds of positive attributes we saddle onto fiction about suffering and trauma. And in a lot of ways, it’s a reaction against those kinds of stories.
The novel is a kind of snapshot of a life told both as a chronicle and narrative, but also as a thematic path. We meet Dorrigo Evans first on his native Tasmania, one year old, as the narrator reflects upon Australia’s role in WWI, a role which speaks to service and sacrifice and glory, but one that also belies the specific military goals of that role. From there we jump around a bit. We know he’s been in the war, and we know he was a doctor in the war who was also a POW and we learn that since the war he’s got a mixed reputation as a doctor (innovative surgeon or butcher) and a decidedly less mixed social reputation, a near sadistic, and almost nihilistic womanizer.
We then jump back into the war and see firsthand the absolute horror of his time as a POW. As a doctor, he’s responsible for the overall health of the prisoner corps, who are enslaved by the Japanese army to build a railroad through the jungle, literally being worked to death, and then told that this sacrifice is in honor of the emperor. But this novel is hardly a pro-Australian nationalist novel as the Australians in the camp include Nazi-sympathizers, truly horrendous other people, and of course we also see the later ramifications on Evans himself.
War here is treated as a totally debasing experience, and one that’s about survival exclusively. In one of the darkest moments of the whole book a dying Australians faces down the inevitability of his death by thinking about how even his fellow Australians will adjust to Japanese control after time.