The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

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.