Unbroken: An Extraordinary True Story of Courage and Survival by Air, Sea and Land, by Laura Hillenbrand, Fourth Estate, RRP£20, 500 pages

Towards the end of Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand’s kinetic tale of the US athlete and prisoner of war Louis Zamperini, the author suggests that her subject’s wartime exploits were comparable to an “Odyssean saga”. A more fitting epic would be that of the Inferno for, like a hyperactive Dante, Zamperini often seemed to be lapping ever lower circles of hell.

Unbroken is a seeming mash-up of every inspirational war story you could imagine. Zamperini is the star athlete who has his shot of certain Olympic glory curtailed by the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He is the cheeky bombardier expressing careless heroism on hair-raising bombing raids. He is the supernaturally resilient castaway, surviving a month on a tiny inflatable life-raft bobbing in the Pacific. He is the defiant prisoner of war singled out for special attention by his sadistic Japanese captors.

So unremitting is the punishment he receives, and so indefatigable his character, that he seems to have set out specifically to break the records of human endurance. Zamperini often seems so steeped in gore he appears to be wearing his insides out. One might want to look away, but Hillenbrand’s storytelling is gripping.

The author herself suffers from debilitating chronic fatigue syndrome, yet seems to thrive on tales of extraordinary stamina. As in Seabiscuit, Hillenbrand’s book about the famous racehorse, speed, endurance and against-the-odds determination are at the fore. From a young Zamperini causing havoc in his California home town, to the sight of an 81-year-old “Zamp” riding a skateboard, Hillenbrand’s breathless narrative never lets up, sweeping the reader along in her subject’s slipstream.

Of course the tale has been told before – not least in Zamperini’s own memoirs, Devil at my Heels – which may lend it a certain mythic familiarity. But a large part of this feeling must come from the way today’s wars have inevitably coloured those of the past. For years the tortures perpetrated in Japanese camps have seemed the absolute abnegation of humanity but, with the techniques practised on Zamperini and his comrades – waterboarding, stress positions – now reportedly being used by US forces, Zamperini’s story seems even more to come from a bygone era of high-contrast good and evil.

Similarly not of this time is the understated way Zamperini dealt with the suffering he endured. The horrors he suffers in the POW camp are most vividly brought home when, after his umpteenth beating, he finds himself wishing he was back on his life-raft, starving and lost in the Pacific.

Unbroken’s last act is in a curious key. Returning to peacetime America, Zamperini was racked by memories of his torturers. He turned to booze, got into fights, and eventually ended up being saved by the evangelist Billy Graham. Inevitably, the deepest, darkest circle of hell that Zamperini found himself running around had himself at its centre.

George Pendle is the author of ‘Death: A Life’ (Three Rivers Press)

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