This is an extraordinary novel that makes you truly embrace the dark side of our humanity & provides a profound understanding of how easy & necessary it can be to use denial to survive. These are small miracles of accomplishment
by the author Richard Flanagan. It is no wonder he won my favorite literary prize; the Man Booker Award.

It is an extremely painful novel that explores the true story of the lives of 1,000 Australian POW’s & their captors building an impossible rail line through Thailand so the Japanese can attack India (as if they did not have enough war fronts). When I think of Japan in World War 2, I think of the impact of the two nuclear bombs that were dropped on a country of non-whites. This book explores the people living in bombed out Tokyo & those charged with war crimes, opening a window into the greater complexity of survival.

This novel describes the horror of coping with the unbearable, it explains PTSD without once using the letters.

When I did sexual abuse & rape work in 1980, back in the days of silence. There was a movement (I did not join) to dig up repressed memories (that later was maligned). I believed a victim’s soul remembered enough. There is evidence this is true in the novel.

On January 18 in the NYT David J. Morris, a Marine writes of his PTSD & how ineffective the prolonged exposure treatment was (promoted by the VA) & how it intensified his trauma. He moved on to cognitive processing therapy where “we were allowed to let sleeping dogs lie” which works for him. This book helps you understand the truth of his experiences.

The characters are layers of complexity, all of whom struggle with what it means to be good & how we all fail. The author’s grip on what it means to be human is especially poignant. I cried more than once & one scene in particular, brings up tears if I even begin to try & describe it to someone else. The word moving does not even begin to capture the depth of feeling generated for the reader.

I heard him lecture in Pittsburgh on 4/29/15 & I was lucky enough to find out that that story was indeed true. He did many interviews to maintain the reality you experience reading it. In that lecture he said that people have two choices with trauma to get stuck & bitter or at the right time heal & move on.

The novel also helps me understand the mystery of terrorism & accept the painful truth of violence today. There are so many pages worthy of bookmarks & I will share only one: “It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure it’s domain is eternal. For the world did not change, this violence had always existed & would never be eradicated…….”.

There is so much ugliness in the world, the main character Dorrigo who does valiant things in god-awful circumstances, who then returns home & hates being a husband or Father. The ordinary violence of lies told by people who don’t go to war, but who are determined to squash possibilities of a future for someone they love are stunningly painful.

The author brilliantly contrasts the brutality of a POW camp with the ordinary brutality of people who do wrongs in the name of love. It takes my breath away, in part because I witness that brutality in my work & am astonished by the wrongs committed to people that are loved.

Denial has it’s uses, particularly around trauma.

The other side of denial is when you do something abominable (like making sure your children agree with you in seeing their other parent is a demon because you want them on your side) which you pretend is ok because your feelings of hurt demand allegiance. This means you hurt your children & you will not grow because you refuse to confront your responsibility in the failure of the relationship. Facing the reality of hurting others is the only way I know to evolve into a more good person.

Any one confused by the violence in the world would do well to digest this extraordinary novel.


About the Rhoda Mills Sommer



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