Richard Flanagan was born in Tasmania as is Dorrigo Evans, the hero of his new book. Flanagan's father survived the notorious Death Railway as a prisoner of the Japanese in World War II. The building of this railway through Thailand and into Burma, to facilitate a Japanese invasion of India, forms the setting of this novel. The title comes from a 17th century classic of Japanese literature about a long journey on foot, told in a mixture of prose and haiku.
Dorrigo Evans is a medical officer in the Austrailian army when he is captured by the Japanese and made to tend to his fellow captives who have been pressed into slave labor cutting through the jungles of Thailand and building the railroad. It was called the Death Railway because it killed nearly 100,00 allied troops, 9000 of them Aussies. This harrowing subject is penned with care by Flanagan. The book is beautifully constructed with occasional poetic quotes which stand in contrast to the stark and frightening conditions the prisoners endured. Flanagan weaves several stories through the bildungsroman of Dorrigo's life, from his childhood in Tasmania, to his love affair with the fascinating and beautiful Amy. The centerpiece of the book is the Prisoner of War Camp where Dorrigo attempts to maintain as much civility as he can, for the men he is responsible for saving. When the war is over those men who make it through are forever scarred, and this includes Evans who becomes a hero in his country, but not much of a father or husband.
After the war has ended, the reader also follows the fate of Marjor Nakamura the protagonist of the prison camp. Flanagan does an admirable job of expressing the confusion of Nakamua who has to work out the dichotomy of blind obedience to the Emperor and his desire to be thought of as a good man. He spends his life trying to work out this puzzle.
The theme of the novel is life's journey and meaning for all the men, Austrailian and Japanese. It seems to elude these men damaged by war. For Dorrigo Evans it is connected with his attachment to Tennyson's poem "Ulysses" who finds life's meaning always just beyond his grasp. Also Evans looks for meaning in the dark Haiku poems of Shisui who at his death had nothing to say that wasn't contained in his final brush painting of a perfect circle.
Flanagan has written a story based on truth that will stay with the reader long after the final page is read. It is well-deserving of the Booker Prize which it won in 2014. Though it deals with man's dehumanizing brutality to man, it also shows us the consequences of the aftermath of war and the hope of rehabilitation. I highly recommend this book to all readers.