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Dorrigo Evans is a war hero. Not only did he survive the Burma Railway, he inspired his fellow POWs as they battled for survival on The Line. He is an old man, doing the speaker circuit. Everyone he meets is happy to see him; everyone he meets is awed. Dorrigo is the personification of the Australian establishment. But rewind to his days of youth; his training to be a doctor; his enlistment in the Army and training outside Adelaide; his life and his loves. Dorrigo started out as a mere mortal; a regular guy with his virtues balanced out by his failings. He has a touch of self-depracating arrogance, but what good doctor doesn't? He seems to have no great ambition and is not driven to enlist through any obvious sense of duty or patriotism. Indeed, based on his early encounters with both friendly and enemy soldiers, he seems to reserve his most withering comments for the British. Then, the moment makes the man. As he and hundreds of fellow Australians are captured by the Japanese, he finds himself in a slave labour camp, hewing at rock with a hammer and chisel to make way for a supply railway from Siam to Burma. This is the major part of the novel. Richard Flanagan exposes us to the full horror of the conditions and their treatment at the hands of the Japanese officers and Korean guards. It's graphic. But the real interest comes from seeing the human side of the assorted prisoners and their guards. The narrative point of view switches around to give each of the characters a chance to come alive. In a film, the Aussie Diggers would all be strong jawed heroes. But here we see an assortment ranging from the naively energetic; through to the selfishly lazy; a guy learning Mein Kampf by heart; various shades of racism; bullies; jokers; friends. It's a real mixed bag and some of these heroes are not nice people at all. By the same token, it would have been easy to portray the Japanese as mindless sadists. Sure, they were brutal, but we are given an insight into the values and thought processes that went behind the brutality. Major Nakamura is portrayed almost as a victim himself, forced to deliver the completion of the railway to absurd deadlines with insufficient resources. Whilst he attaches no value to the lives of prisoners, he is concerned only with completion of The Line and duty to his superiors and the Emperor. He has contempt for prisoners of war - it would have been nobler to die in battle - he does not hate them. His crime is one of indifference. His vicious guard, the Goanna, has even less emotional investment in the project and only lives for his pay slip. The novel follows the post-war lives of some of the characters too - well, those who survive. We see the transition of ordinary people into heroes or villains according to the fortune of their side in the war. We find them largely indifferent to their destiny. Yet Richard Flanagan does not portray their fate as luck. Dorrigo, the hero, has a further chance to prove his mettle which he seizes instinctively. He really is a hero, albeit one who spends most of his time being rather ordinary and rather alone. Perhaps it is the medical training, perhaps it is his complicated life, but Dorrigo bears more than a passing resemblance to Yuri Zhivago. The themes in the novel are epic; the story is complex but always coherent. But also, the narrative can be light, humorous but it can also be heartbreakingly sad. The scenes are depicted perfectly; the imagery is so right it is like looking at a photograph. The novel may lack some of the tricks and ingenuity of other modern novels and, in a way, it feels a little old fashioned. But it achieves what it sets out to do with perfection. It's a longish novel, but it holds the attention; the reader almost daren't look away. The next time I buy an ANZAC badge or Legacy torch I will be thinking of Dorrigo and his real life counterparts. *****
A Capital Union is a novel about conflicting loyalties. Told by Agnes, a young Ayrshire girl who has found herself in 1942, under the age of 18, married to Jeff, a University of Edinburgh lecturer. Jeff’s field of study is linguistics – specifically recording Scots dialect. He “found” Agnes whilst recording Ayrshire Scots and whisked her off to his late mother’s tenement in affluent Morningside. Agnes is out of her depth; she is expected to be genteel, refined and able to keep house despite the privations of rationing. She depends heavily on Jeff, whom she barely knows, to guide her in her new station. So, Agnes is surprised to find that Jeff is involved in nationalist politics, being prominent in a campaign to not recognise the Westminster government’s conscription to arms. Agnes is mortified to be associated with such an unpopular campaign and is afraid on the one hand that she will be ostracised from a community in which she already feels uncomfortable, and afraid on the other that she will be left on her own if Jeff is jailed as a conscientious objector. From the outset, there are conflicts between the national and the personal. Jeff is also not too keen on the idea of imprisonment and this will test his political resolve. But he is also tested by the fact he is supposedly taking his stand – just as he is recording Scots dialect – to protect the Scottish birthright of people like Agnes who seem so ambivalent to his objectives. Meanwhile, the astute reader will pick up that, as a Sgitheanach, he is already compromising himself by working to preserve the Scots dialect (or Lallans, as he would have it) whilst ignoring the early signs of the demise of his own Gàidhlig language. Agnes, for her part, is terribly young and extremely naïve. She married simply because she thought marriage was inevitable, but being barely more than a child she looks for love wherever she can find it. Although having grave misgivings with Jeff, she looks to others who are more extreme still. She seems to deal with people purely on the basis of her last contact with them – if they were nice to her she will be loyal to them; if they were unkind to her she will betray them. This, despite bringing her into conflict with her purported wartime patriotic duty. The relationships are intriguing and Agnes is an engaging character. The men seem much more to be ciphers and feel less real – perhaps because we are forced to see them through Agnes’s uneducated eyes. But the writing tends to clunk. The early pre-occupation with Scots dialect feels like random words dropped into an English sentence. It doesn’t flow or feel authentic. Later on, a character speaks in German and always follows up each German sentence with a direct translation into English. This *really* grates. And the ending feels rushed and rather improbable. On a positive note, Victoria Hendry does a good job in describing Edinburgh at war – a city that still had life and activity, famous buildings and whisky; that felt at one remove from the rather more familiar image of wartime London. A Capital Union is a good effort, but just doesn’t quite deliver on its promise. It skirts important issues and important conflicts without quite getting into enough depth. It could have been more focused on the identity of a nation; it could have been more focused on the identity of a person. In the event, it didn’t quite manage either. ***00