Prisoner 335 was one of 9,000 Australians, 51,000 other Allied soldiers and up to a quarter of a million local slave labourers forced by the Japanese in the Second World War to build a railway between Thailand and Burma. Films such as Bridge over the River Kwai and The Railway Man have graphically shown the privations and torture those men had to survive, but Flanagan’s novel goes beyond “the suffering, the deaths, the sorrow, the abject, pathetic pointlessness of such immense suffering by so many”. That is not to say the work minimises their suffering: no-one who reads his account of the daily beatings inflicted by the Japanese, the torrential rains that flooded the latrines, or the diseases that ravaged the work camps would say that.
But Flanagan opens the canvas still wider. What happens to his protagonist Dorrigo Evans – modelled on Australian war hero Edward Dunlop – before and after the war matters as much as the hellish years of building “the Line”. The love affair with his uncle’s young bride at training camp burns in his memory all his life, not least when he returns to a stiflingly conventional marriage. And though he undoubtedly was a hero in the war, interceding on behalf of his men no matter the risks to his own life, he is desperately uncomfortable at being portrayed as such in the long years of peace.