Off-shore Adventures

Why I am reading this year’s Man Booker winner

I picked the wrong winner. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves didn’t win the Man Booker.

The good news is that for the second year in a row the  prize has come down here, to the bottom of the world. New Zealand’s very own Eleanor Catton won in 2013  with The Luminaries. (Proud though I am that she took out the prize I have to admit: I haven’t read it.)

This year Australian, Richard Flanagan won for his novel The Narrow Road To The Deep North. It’s about the Burma Railway.

When I realised the subject matter it went straight to the top of my reading list. There are two reasons for this.

Hell Fire Pass Memorial Museum

Hell Fire Pass Memorial Museum

The first is that last year I visited Kanchanaburi, Thailand. I went to Hell Fire Pass, I rode on the Death Railway and I walked across The Bridge On The River Kwai at sunset.  It wasn’t an easy day. As we descended the hundred or more steps from the  Australian Memorial Museum down to Hellfire Pass, in sensible shoes, with sun hats and bottles of water and our stomachs full, we and our previously light-hearted companions grew quiet. When we spoke it was with sombre, hushed tones, the sort you might get in church – at a funeral. The ghosts of the prisoners were all about us.

The Burma railway alone was responsible for 20% of Australian casualties during W.W.II. Many thousands more Malays and Chinese, lured  into forced labour on the railway with promises of jobs and money, died as well. The deaths of these people weren’t even recorded. As the war effort became more desperate and success more elusive, the prisoners and the labourers were tortured, beaten, starved, and then required to work eighteen hours a day, hacking the railway through stone and jungle, their bodies ravaged by cholera, beri beri and other diseases. The photos  I saw in the Memorial Museum were as bad, if not worse, than any I’ve seen from Nazi concentration camps.

The second reason the book went to the top of my list is this: I’m a post war baby, a boomer. Growing up I heard terrifying stories of the  atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers, desperate not to lose face, in The Pacific Theatre. Moreover, the threat of attack and the fear of invasion in New Zealand was very real. There are stories of Japanese submarines surfacing in Auckland harbour, even of one being seen in the waters of Hawkes Bay. German raiders set mines and attacked allied ships in New Zealand waters. My Dad, as part of the Hawkes Bay regiment, spent a long, cold winter garrisoned at Woodville, sleeping in the stands at the Race Course, guarding The Manawatu Gorge, a key access point across the island. They were to stop The Japs if they tried to get through the gorge. And then later, he was required to guard a prisoner of war camp, after atrocities had been perpetrated against the prisoners – those prisoners were Japanese soldiers. I know from the little Dad said and from his memoirs he took his duties seriously.

WWII cast a long shadow over my childhood. And a deeper and darker shadow over the lives of my parents. One that they didn’t talk about much. It must have been like that for Richard Flanagan, even more so. The Narrow Road To The Deep North was inspired by his father’s experiences as a prisoner of war on the Burma Railroad.

Now, when I’m not reading The Narrow Road To The Deep North, I’m wishing I could be, or I’m thinking about the phrases, the descriptions, those aha moments that are my greatest reading pleasures. Flanagan’s simple description of the jungle during the dry season is an example: “the trees were leafless, the jungle open, the earth dusty.”

I’ve only been in to the jungle in the dry season and that’s exactly what it’s like. It might be humid, but it’s not steamy. It is dusty. Last year, I’d wondered where all the vegetation was. Now I know – if I want a verdant and dense and steamy jungle, I need to visit during the rainy season.

The Burma Railway was meant to secure victory for the Japanese. They expected to force it through the jungle from Thailand, across Burma to India and they expected to do the job in a  a year. As they became more desperate, the pressure on their soldiers to get every ounce out of the labourers and prisoners became immense. The brutality delivered to those men was inhuman or, you could say, dreadfully human.

Last November, in the van on the way back to town there was little conversation. We were all deep in thought. I wondered  about the Japanese guards. It’s all too easy to pillory them, to place the blame on them. I don’t think it’s that simple. As Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, says we all have the capacity to be saints and we all have the capacity to be monstrous. What happened there, it’s in all of us.

hell fire pass - 17

Commonwealth War Grave at Kanchanaburi

The next day, before heading back to Bangkok, John and I visited Kanchanaburi war cemetery. Over 5000 men from the Commonwealth are buried here. In the stinking heat and humidity, so hot I felt ill, l searched for and found the graves of the three New Zealanders who lost their lives so far from home, in a country so different from anything their families were likely to have been able to imagine, in a war that at the time looked unwinnable. It was the least I could do.

Of all the sights at Hell Fire Pass, this is the one that stays with me, the one I reflect on the most often. The Peace Vessel. It’s on display in the museum, directly above Hell Fire Pass. Those hills: that’s Burma. In between there’s only jungle. Peter Rushforth  survived The Burma Railway. On his return to Australia he studied pottery in Melbourne. His pieces are exhibited all over the world.

The Peace Vessel

The Peace Vessel

I’ll let you know what I think about The Narrow Road To The Deep North when I’ve finished. I have a hunch it’ll show me humanity – how great we can be and how monstrous.

Richard Flanagan said in his acceptance speech when he was commenting on the future of the novel as a form: Novels are life. That’s a statement which encourages me to read this book with hope.

Have you been to Kanchanaburi? To Hell Fire Pass?

And, what are your thoughts about this year’s Man Booker winner?

26 replies »

  1. Haunting description Jill. I visited this place about 20 years ago and I still remember the horrifying story. I look forward to your book review. I have ordered “We are all completely beside ourselves” from the library and look forward to reading it.


    • I think it’s one of those places you just never forget the atmosphere. As if the horror of it all has seeped into the land.

      And I’d love to hear what you think of “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” when you’ve read it.


  2. How odd that you mention this book – I was just considering getting it on Audible (read by the author)… but wasn’t sure if maybe it would be too heavy going. But your beautiful pictures and thoughtful insight have sold me. I am looking forward to hearing your final impressions… I will chime in and let you know how it’s gone for me then. 🙂 Thank you so very much for visiting me and for your followship – I so look forward to hearing more from you as well! 🙂 Mother Hen


  3. Such a beautiful post – and you are quite a history buff – and well – as the post went on, I felt right there in the van with you….
    “on the way back to town there was little conversation. We were all deep in thought. I wondered about the Japanese guards…”

    and the photos are wonderful – the first set in that collage had all those paths – and a lot of depth going on – and then that single photo of the bridge – the composition is great. I am not sure if some pros would tell you to crop out the blue tent top to the left – but I love how it balances the photo with the boats under the bridge – and then the person in red on the bridge pulls the eye up to make this triangle of balance (IMO) and the two railings to the front bring us into the shot – I juts really like it… 🙂


    • Hey there Y, I appreciate your comments about the composition of the last photo. In all honesty John snapped it with his iPhone as we were walking towards the bridge. There was no time to think about it much. I like the blue tent, too – it helps to set the context – there was a lot of activity on the river.


      • well that is cool – and I think that is another reason why I challenge what some of the pros say about cropping and all that. For example, I was just on another blog and someone told the blogger some tips – and I am sure they were good cropping tips for certain photo aesthetics – but I just felt like something would have been lost too – anyhow, John grabbed a cool shot! ❤


  4. I haven’t been there myself at all Jill but this is such a wonderfully written article I can imagine the scene. I know about it through history studies and general knowledge and it sounds harrowing. I have visited a Nazi concentration camp, Sachsenhausen near Berlin and that was unspeakable. A moving article – thanks for sharing your thoughts and photos too!


    • I’m very glad you enjoyed my post, rosemaylily. It’s an unforgettable place, as I imagine Sachsenhausen is. So far, although parts of the book are harrowing as well, it’s proving to be a very satisfying read – I was going to say enjoyable but that’s not quite the right word.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes I know what you mean Jill – I would not call visiting Sachsenhausen enjoyable by any stretch of the imagination – it was harrowing but unforgettable and something I feel one must do if you’re in the vicinity. My daughter went to Auschwitz last year when she visited Krakow in Poland and found that a traumatic and deeply moving experience. Hopefully education will lead to a better and more tolerant world!


        • Ah, That reminds me of a piece I highlighted in The Open Road by Pico Iyer, he’s summarising a teaching by the Dalai Lama : “The Dalai Lama liked to talk of “human beings”, nearly always preceded by the pronoun “we”, but what he was really talking about was “human becomings”, and the way each one of us could travel along the open road to becoming more compassionate and responsible.”
          I think there’s always hope – and kindness, that helps.

          Liked by 1 person

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