Ah… literary fiction, my old nemesis. Also, winner of the Man Booker Prize. I’ve been burned by that prize in the past. As I type this review, I am still uncertain whether I actually enjoyed the book or not. Few books have affected me that way in the past. They leave a question mark where there should be some sense of finality. I find it unsettling, but I am still thinking about it, so bravo Mr. Flanagan. You got me.
Flanagan’s words are actually quite beautiful. There is a poetry in which he describes the inner tormented workings of his protagonist’s mind. We meet Dorrigo Evans, successful surgeon and WWII hero during various points in his career. We see him in the harsh light of day, as he wants to be seen, and as he is seen by others. The women who love him, the men who he tried to save in a Japanese POW camp working on the Burmese Railway, and Darky Gardiner, the man who haunts his dreams. Evans is neither hero, nor villain, nor quite a victim of circumstance. Perhaps that is why I had such difficulty about this book. Evans is a scoundrel at times. Evans has moments of his life when his better angels prevail. Evans has moments of catastrophic weakness and selfishness. It is challenging to feel peace about such a character. Perhaps that is the point, that none of us are any one thing. We can be scoundrels, and angels, and heroes, and victims all at once.
Fiction fans who like a more profound novel will be taken with this book.