The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan – book review

A post for ANZAC day.

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North is the simply devastating,  Man-Booker prize winning novel by Richard Flanagan.

The story follows a group of Australian POWs during World War II as they are forced to construct Imperial Japan’s Thailand-Burma death railway – a railway the British had deemed impossible to build because of the harsh impenetrable jungle. The Japanese, using POWs as disposable labor seek to build the ‘impossible’ railway in less than a year.

Flanagan’s father was a survivor of the brutal atrocity which claimed the lives of 12,000 Allied prisoners. After hearing his father’s first hand accounts of the tragedy, Flanagan explained “I had known for a long time that this was the book I had to write if I was to keep on writing”.

The tale is told from the perspective of Dr. Dorrigo Evans, introduced to the reader as a 77-year-old war hero. Evans is a flawed character, reluctantly revered by the public and promiscuously floating from one affair to the next. When asked to write an introduction to a collection of sketches drafted by a fellow serviceman during their time imprisoned in Siam, Evans begins to reflect on that horrific period.

Captured as a POW, Evans finds himself in command of 700 laden, fevered and starved prisoners. Each day Evans must bargain with the Japanese captors in attempting to ensure only the healthiest men are sent to work on the railway that day. The problem is that there is no such thing as a healthy POW.  Evans’ men more resemble skeletons, their ulcer-covered bodies rotting away from chorea or starvation. Evans does what he can to save each one, but knows that many will each day be sent to their deaths. As a doctor, Evans also spends his time in the hospital tents, doing what he can to postpone the inevitable. During one particular surgery scene my heart pulsed as my eyes raced to the bottom of the page. I’d never experienced such as intense physical reaction to a book before, literally biting my nails as I finished the chapter.

Between the time on the railway, the story shifts back in time to before the war to focus of Evans’ affair with his uncle’s wife. It’s at this point that one could accuse Flanagan of drifting into pretentiousness as he waxes poetic about their lovemaking and the intricacies of their bodies with some very flowery language. At times, it’s a little on the nose. However, because these scenes are balanced by the raw, visceral descriptions of life as a POW, and because the writing is damn good, the flowery love scenes are completely forgivable.

In addition to shifts in time, Flanagan also boldly shifts perspective to that of the  Japanese officers and Korean guards. In doing so, the reader is provided the point of view of those whose cruelty and evil is rationalised as justified in service to the emperor. In one particularly powerful scene, a Japanese officer who once oversaw the work on the railway, has gone on to live a full life and escape persecution, despite being hunted as a war criminal in years after the war. In his later years he reflects upon the atrocities committed on the POWs. In doing so, the reader witnesses a man undergo an experience of near revelation, as the officer is hit with the notion that the cruelty he committed was never justified and that he can never be absolved from the evil he undertook in the name of the emperor. The reader then watches as the potential revelation is rationalised away once again through the process of denial. It is powerful and captivating reading.

In short, The Narrow Road is simply one of the most affecting war novels I’ve experienced.  Flanagan brilliantly captures the near indescribable hardship these men went through, the brutality and cruelty of their captors and the humanity and desperate clinging to civilization of the prisoners. It’s a novel that will sear into your consciousness and leave you shocked and in awe.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North can be purchased here.

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