Top positive review
Cumulatively powerful portrait of a lifelong sense of loss
2 January 2016
A naked, emaciated man lies on a rickety table, deep in the Burmese jungle. Another man, tall, gaunt and worried, is about to amputate high up the rotting leg, using a spoon with a bent handle to apply a tourniquet and home-made, weak anaesthetic.
The harshness of existence in the Japanese prison camp is in sharp contrast to the leisurely, lifelong tale of regret which washes out of Dorrigo Evans. The story moves skilfully back and forth between Evans' frenzied (and not entirely convincing) wartime love affair, his desperate work as a make-do surgeon in a prisoner of war camp, and a successful, hollow career in post-war Australia. Everything is filtered through Evans' consciousness with a certain lazy bitterness.
This works well, though the language can be repetitive and Evans' self-obsessed ruminations can become stifling.
But the 2014 Booker prize-winning story is powerful in its cumulative effect. There are striking minor characters who puncture Evans' detachment from life. Over it all hangs a deep melancholia - ostensibly occasioned by the war and the death of his lover - which seems to me to be deeply rooted in the Tasmanian hero's character.