The Railway Man, by Eric Lomax has recently been made into a movie starring Colin Firth (I’m a big fan after his wonderful depiction of Mr Darcy in my all-time favourite book/TV series, Pride and Prejudice) and Nicole Kidman. I haven’t seen the movie, but I will get myself a copy soon to watch on one of those nights I’m here on my own. I try to avoid wherever possible seeing the movie before reading the book and am almost always disappointed with the movie. There are exceptions though. The Devil Wears Prada was a much better movie than novel, and so was Julie and Julia (though that’s probably because of the way the film was able to show Julia Child’s life in contrast to Julie the blogger in away the book was not). The Railway Man is a fascinating and at times harrowing retelling of one man’s experience as a POW in some of the most atrocious camps and jails in Thailand and Malaya during the second world war. The effects of this experience determined his whole life afterwards. However, in a moving display of compassion Lomax, decades after the end of the war, meets and forgives the one man he had held in his mind as representing the horrors of what was done to him and his comrades. That is an extraordinary moment of courage and humanity. And that is the story Eric Lomax tells in his memoir.
However, I suspect this may be one of the few stories I enjoy more as a film than a novel. The story is fascinating and deserves telling, but I did find the incredible detail a little overwhelming. Not the detail of the camps or what was done to him and others so much – though that is often disturbing – it’s the nitty gritty detail, the detail about trains (oh so much stuff on trains in the first third), and times, and timetables, and dates, and…. and…. And then he would skip forward many months or years in just a few lines and skim over many of the things I found interesting – like his time in India before heading to Singapore and his entire several decade first marriage and children. There is also feeling of emotional distance – understandable given the circumstances – between Lomax and his experiences, especially in his transition from hatred and revenge to forgiveness and compassion. He talks candidly about his inability to talk about anything to do with the war and his captivity for several decades, only opening up after meeting his second wife and finding a clinic that dealt with the emotional and psychological scars left by torture. Despite this, the book for me, still lacked that insight in some ways.
Having said all that, this remains an important book and one worth reading. It is clearly written, but could have been edited a bit more tightly, and has obviously been a cathartic exercise for the author.