CBR-V Review #33: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken is the true story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympian  track star turned World War II soldier, and his experiences as a POW in Japan after a plane crash that left him stranded at sea for nearly 50 days.

I was expecting to love this book, as it has rave reviews and was written by Laura Hillenbrand, whose Seabiscuit I loved when I read it years ago. To my surprise, I absolutely hated it.

I think my biggest problem with the book is that it has such an unreliable narrator. The bulk of the narrative is based on stories told by Zamperini himself, and have no way of really being verified by outside sources. There were places, then, that (to me) seemed completely unbelievable and probably untrue, but there’s nothing in the narrative to either support the events or dispute them.

Zamperini is also presented as, essentially, a 100% good hero. There’s no grey area for his character, no complexity, nothing to show that he’s a real, fully-rounded character with flaws and fears and less-than-perfect qualities. I kind of hate “overcoming the odds” stories in generally because I find them flat and uninteresting–I don’t like my heroes to be so one-dimensional.

I did like the parts of the novel that dealt with Zamperini’s time at sea, and wished that they had more focus (actually, from the plot summaries I’d read and the book jacket, I’d assumed that the plane crash and the ensuing struggle to survive would be the main story). It’s actually only a small portion of the narrative, with the rest focusing on his time in Japan.

I also appreciated the insight into life as a WWII soldier, and was impressed by Hillenbrand’s research and fully realized portrait of the army at that time. However, she also got bogged down by the details–I could feel my eyes glazing over in some of the parts where she goes on and on about different battles and dates and training techniques that ultimately aren’t significant in the overall story. I count myself as a history buff and someone who is generally fairly receptive to a lot of more mundane trivia in biographies/nonfiction, but this was excessive. She could have used a good editor to make this more readable.

Overall, I personally can’t recommend this book. However, it has consistently excellent reviews from most other sources, so it might just come down to a personal preference thing.

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