Book review · Non-fiction

Book review: “Surviving the death railway” by Hilary Custance Green

This book, compiled by fellow blogger, Hilary Custance Green, was given to me as a Christmas present. It was well into this year before I began reading it, but once I started I was hooked.

Surviving the death railway
“Surviving the death railway” by Hilary Custance Green (2016)

Hilary’s father, Barry (the handsome chap on the cover), was 26 years old and a Captain in the British Army when he was posted to the Far East during the Second World War. His young wife, Phyllis (the lovely lady on the cover), and their baby son, Robin, were left behind in England, expecting to join Barry in due course. At that time, in the summer of 1941, the Far East was at peace and there was little inkling of what lay ahead.

As soon as they were apart, Barry and Phyllis began communicating with each other by letter. It is these letters that make up the bulk of the book, along with letters sent to Phyllis by relatives and friends of other men serving alongside Barry. During what ended up being four years of separation, Phyllis made it her mission to try and keep in touch with the families of Barry’s unit, known as 27 Line Section.

After Japan became involved in the war, life deteriorated significantly for the British and their allies serving in the Far East. Held as Prisoners of War (PoWs) by the Japanese, they were treated appallingly. Along with many of his fellow PoWs, Barry was frequently moved between various work camps in Malaya and worked on the now infamous Burma-Siam railway.

Throughout this time the sending and receiving of mail became increasingly difficult, with letters taking months, or often years, to be delivered. For three and a half long years after becoming a PoW, Barry was constantly waiting for news from Phyllis while Phyllis was desperately awaiting letters from Barry. Each of them continued to write, always hoping for some sort of response. It’s hard to imagine just how difficult it must have been to keep on writing in those circumstances.

Thousands of PoWs died in the Far East, but Barry was one of the survivors. After reading this book it seems clear that his relationship with Phyllis was a big part of what kept him going. For Phyllis, left to bring up their small child on her own and and never sure whether her husband was still alive or not, the prospect of one day having him back gave her hope for a brighter future. The love Barry and Phyllis had for each other shines through the pages from beginning to end.

Although the conditions Far Eastern PoWs had to endure were truly horrific, and some of what’s described in the book makes for distinctly uncomfortable reading, I found this a surprisingly uplifting and moving read. The book is skilfully edited by Hilary, with sufficient context and extra information to allow the letters to speak for themselves. After finishing the book I was left with the reassuring feeling that, no matter how bad things get and how awful human beings can be to each other, love and friendship always win through.

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6 thoughts on “Book review: “Surviving the death railway” by Hilary Custance Green

    1. Thank you, Darlene. It was a fascinating insight into how the war affected those at home as well as those serving overseas. Seeing things from two perspectives at once made the whole thing come alive for me.

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  1. Lorna, this is so kind. I gave a talk about the book yesterday (my last one for a bit) and so I came home on a high. I met yet more (elderly) children of Far Easy POWs who respond so positively to this story, and then I saw your review and it added to my uplift. When I decided to research this story, I was aware of a gruelling task ahead of me. Some of the reading has been immensely difficult, but the support these men and women gave each other has indeed been uplifting, and gives one hope for the future.

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    1. I can imagine how well received your book must have been by the children of PoWs, it’s great that you’ve had the opportunity to meet and talk with them. I really do take my hat off to you for tackling this project; it must have been a considerable uphill struggle at times but the effort has certainly paid off. I meant to add something about how nicely produced the book is, from the attractive cover design to the high quality paper inside. I don’t think I’ve read another book quite like it and I’m still thinking about it days after finishing it. Thank you for an engaging and inspiring read.

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