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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 477

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Although this book is fictional, Flanagan bases his novel on in-depth historical research. The story depicts the horrific conditions captured Allied soldiers faced as they were forced to build an underground railroad from Burma to Thailand for the Japanese. Flanagan interviewed his father, a survivor of the railroad and war, as a primary source.

This quote references the railroad itself:

It was a fabled railway that was the issue of desperation and fanaticism, made as much of myth and unreality as it was to be of wood and iron and the thousands upon thousands of lives that were to be laid down over the next year to build it. But what reality was ever made by realists?

The novel provides an in-depth look at what soldiers endured under excruciating conditions of torture, disease, neglect, starvation, and death. Every day was a battle for survival, as thousands died in the building process.

The path to survival was to never give up on the small things.

As soldiers tried to endure each day, the emotional suffering was sometimes just as much as the physical.

In trying to escape the fatality of memory, he discovered with an immense sadness that pursuing the past inevitably only leads to greater loss.

While captured, Allied soldiers were made to work while they battled dehydration in sweltering heat, as well as open wounds, inflections, dysentery, cholera, and even malaria.

Horror can be contained within a book, given form and meaning. But in life horror has no more form than it does meaning. Horror just is. And while it reigns, it is as if there is nothing in the universe that it is not.

Workers faced altered realities as they were removed from a world they once knew and subjected to a sorrowful life of existence. Paradigms shifted as men fought to remain human. The next two quotes capture these truths.

And his life was now, he felt, one monumental unreality, in which everything that did not matter—professional ambitions, the private pursuit of status, the colour of wallpaper, the size of an office or the matter of a dedicated car parking space—was treated with the greatest significance, and everything that did matter—pleasure, joy, friendship, loved—was deemed somehow peripheral.

It's only our faith in illusions that makes life possible. It's believing in reality that does us in every time.

There is also commentary on the social and political debates of war and consequences of war.

He thought of how the world organises its affairs so that civilisation every day commits crimes for which any individual would be imprisoned for life. And how people accept this either by ignoring it and calling it current affairs or politics or wars.

Flanagan's novel also addresses the overwhelming sorrow of losing a loved one.

How empty is the world when you lose the one you love.

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