Rating this book on Goodreads was a challenge for me. There were parts that were 5 star worthy; there were parts that were 1 star worthy. There was beautiful prose; there was overwrought, overwritten prose. There were interesting, thoughtful characters; there were two-dimensional, dull characters. There was a part of history I hadn't been aware of that was fascinating and tragic; there was a romantic subplot that was a snore. There were interesting metaphors; there were annoyances like no quotation marks and the author's insistence on repeatedly giving us a character's first and last name when one or the other would do. How would you rate such a book?
This novel is mostly about an episode in WWII in which Australian POWs (among others) were conscripted by the Japanese into building a railroad between Burma and Siam through jungle, rough terrain, and monsoons. The prisoners were, as you might guess, not well cared for, and the Japanese treated them cruelly. The psychology of all involved--prisoner and prison-keeper--is explored, through torture and how prisoners responded to torture. There are many--many, many, frankly too many--scenes involving gruesome incidents of illness and death. There are scenes that explore lives after the war, and how being a prisoner--or being the overseeing the prisoners--plays out.
If it sounds dynamic, it is, in places. I came away wishing that less of the book had been focused on dysentery and malaria, and more focused on the post-War lives. How the Japanese war criminals lived their lives is especially interesting, and I would have loved to see more of that.
Unfortunately, we also got a long, drawn-out romantic tale involving a surgeon who cared for the prisoners. He's supposed to be the character holding this all together, and the story begins and ends with him and his romance and romantic ideas. And I just didn't care. The romance was inutterably dull. The surgeon himself was not all that interesting.
Add into that and the quirks I mentioned earlier--not to imagine a groan-inducing "coincidence" revealed toward the end of the book--and it became a maddening read for all that it could have been and wasn't. I mean, I loved this passage, a train of thought in the post-War life from one of the Japanese oppressors:
"He had told himself that, through his service of this cosmic goodness, he had discovered he was not one man but many, that he could do the most terrible things he might otherwise have thought were evil if he had not known that they were in the service of the ultimate goodness. For he loved poetry above all, and the Emperor was a poem of one word--perhaps, he thought, the greatest poem--a poem that encompassed the universe and transcended all morality and all suffering. And like all great art, it was beyond good and evil."
More of that. Less crappy romance.