The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Richard Flanagan

The Narrow Road to the Deep North
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The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Richard Flanagan

Winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize

A novel of the cruelty of war, and tenuousness of life and the impossiblity of love.


August, 1943. In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma death railway, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his love affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier. Struggling to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from beatings, he receives a letter that will change his life forever.

This savagely beautiful novel is a story about the many forms of love and death, of war and truth, as one man comes of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost.

Review

Richard Flanagan’s savagely beautiful and haunting sixth novel, set in a Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma death railway, follows the life of Dorrigo Evans, a surgeon who has left behind two women – the woman he is expected to marry, Ella, and the other, his Uncle’s young wife, Amy. Each of these women knows Dorrigo as flawed – but they love him, though each very differently. Returned from war he is cast as a hero, a Weary Dunlop of sorts. But he grapples with this cast, and despite self-doubt and a restless unknowing, he had taken care of his charges with a staid dutifulness. At home, he is at once different and removed, but to others charming and elegant – a tension that provides a simmering undercurrent to the novel. He is a man of masks, but not really unhappy to be misunderstood.

After the horrors of the POW camp – cholera, beatings, hunger, lice, monsoon rains – the novel navigates the post-war trials of particular Japanese soldiers convicted of being war criminals. Flanagan switches our gaze so for a part we observe post-war life through the lens of a Japanese soldier, Major Nakamuru, whose justifications, and the tenuous veil he holds between his beliefs and actions, are both moving and horrifying.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is acutely researched. Flanagan has said that he wrote this novel ‘in the shadow of [his] father dying’, and the book is dedicated to the soldier with the Japanese numeral for 335, Flanagan’s father’s own roll-call number while he was on the death rail. The contrast between the Australian and Japanese soldiers is particularly well formed. The Japanese soldier’s rationale for atrocity rests on their service of honour and duty to the Emperor; for Nakamura, he consolidates his actions as in service of a ‘cosmic goodness’. The Australians, in contrast, face their reality as just that.

The conclusion, a twist, took me utterly by surprise – Flanagan builds to it with the precision and patience of, perhaps, a surgeon. Like Dorrigo, we feel an immense weight of loss, but what ultimately sticks is that this, at times near unbearably, is a wholly human novel.


Belle Place is the editor of Readings Monthly.

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