On this first day of winter, and the shortest day of the year, I’m sitting with a cup of tea on the table in front of me and one of my cats on my lap, looking forward to two weeks off work over the holidays, which will hopefull translate into lots of time to catch up on all (well, some!) of the reading I haven’t gotten to over the year. I’ll just mention that I’ve had to improvise with my tea again, so I used the STASH brand of Black Chai teabags, which are pretty good. I frothed my warm soy milk to make it a bit special, and I used my huge soup mug, like they do in cafes – it’s not quit the same, but it’ll do until I can find a replacement, which is one of my missions over the next two weeks.
I mentioned in my last post that I was reading a book with the intention of writing a review for the paper, Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North. Well, just as I was nearing the end, I sent an email to the Books Editor letting him know that I was going to have a review of this book soon, and was informed that someone else had sent in a review that was actually going to be in the paper this Saturday. That was a bit of a relief, as reading with the intent to review is very different from reading for pure enjoyment. I had made notes all the way along, so I thought I could still make use of these notes by calling this part of this week’s post “Jottings for review”. If you recall, this novel tells the story of Dorrigo Evans, a celebrated war hero and surgeon in the Second World War who survived the building of the Death Railway between Siam and Burma in 1943, an undertaking instigated by the Japanese using Asian civilian labourers and allied POWs. Here is what I would have liked to say in my review, direct from my notes (this is the unpolished version): This book is a war story and a love story, a book that explores the human condition from various perspectives: Amy, the deeply unhappy wife of Keith, Dorry’s uncle; Major Nakamura, of the Japanese Imperial Army, who beats his prisoners and denies them the most essential basic necessities, yet loves poetry and justifies his actions as serving “the greater good”; Darky Gardiner, an Australian POW in Dorry’s regiment, who, for reasons unknown, personifies for Dorry the bitter senselessness of war; and Dorry, the sensitive, poetry-loving surgeon who unwittingly becomes the commander of a regiment of mostly Australian POWs who have surrendered to the Japanese in Java. This is not an easy book to read, nor is it a happy, “feel good” book – it is an awful, wonderful book filled with graphic scenes of horrific conditions, that is still somehow fueled by the spirit of hope and the will to survive: “a shared dream of human transcendence… that was just out of reach” (p 186). Points of view and time periods shift from chapter to chapter, but while it may at first seem difficult to follow, eventually the reader becomes so caught up in the story that he or she is pulled along with the story and experiences, with the characters, the loves and losses, as well as the joys and achievements, that are so plentiful in the story. It is at once a novel that explores the search for those things we most desire, and the denial of these things in the name of personal moral integrity. When I started to read the last section of the book and found that it began with stories of what happened after the war ended, I immediately thought “Thank goodness the war is over!” Then I caught myself – if I was so relieved by this ending, how much more relieved were the thousands who had fought, suffered, and yet somehow survived? It is about memory, and the unreliability of memory. Of the memory of Darky’s beating, Flanagan writes: “(it was) no more within their control and therefore no more within their consciousness than a rock falling… It simply was, and it was best dealt with by finding other things to think about” (p 213). One of Dorry’s favourite lines states, “The world is; it just is”. Rabbit Hendricks’ sketchbook of some of these war scenes, which plays a major role in the book, is saved in order to remember, to remind us of the war, and the sacrifices, and the atrocities, for once the war is over, it is all forgotten. This book, too, serves as a reminder of that terrible period in history and the horrors of war that never end, scene after scene of horrors that weave themselves seamlessly into the text, until the shock value diminishes for the reader; this must have been what it was like for the POWs, shock and disgust at first, then this horror becomes reality, day after day, relentlessly plodding on, until the horror becomes commonplace: “It was a day to die, not because it was a special day, but because it wasn’t, and every day was a day to die” (p 223). Of the Death Railway, Flanagan writes: “it was all for nothing, and of it nothing remained. People kept on longing for meaning and hope, but the annals of the past are a muddy story of chaos only” (p 227). It is about the lasting effects of war on lives that can go on for generations. Near the end, the author seems to have lost his way, but despite a rather weak ending, it was one of the best, most meaningful, most memorable books I’ve read in a while. I felt that this quotation sums up the novel: “It’s only our faith in illusions that makes life possible… it’s believing in reality that does us in every time” (p 202). This novels was the winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize, and it certainly earned that distinction. This book was a powerful, awful, wonderful read that I would recommend to all but the faint of heart.
Now I’m reading Ann Marie MacDonald’s Adult Onset, and I can’t wait to tell you about it. Alas, I will have to wait until I finish it, so more on that book in next week’s post.
Happy Winter Solstice! Hope you get lots of great books for Christmas!
Bye for now...