The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

We would like to thank guest reviewer Jason Downing for this post today.  As a long term fan of Richard Flanagan, he was always the perfect person to review this important book……

I should disclose up front that I came to this book as a fan of Richard Flanagan’s writing. I loved Gould’s Book of Fish and thought the subject matter of The Narrow Road to the Deep North sounded fantastic. I bought the book about a month before it was announced as a Man Booker Prize finalist. In a way, the high regard I already held for Richard Flanagan was a two-edged sword. I had big expectations, but that can sometimes lead to being disappointed if the work doesn’t quite measure up to past efforts.

Soon after I started reading, bookies installed The Narrow Road to the Deep North as favourite or second favourite for the Man Booker Prize and it ultimately won. However, in coming to review the book, I tried hard to stay objective and I deliberately didn’t read any press or reviews or even interviews with Richard Flanagan until I had finished it.

I am certainly not the first person to come to this view, but in my humble opinion, this novel is a masterpiece. It is an extraordinary book by a very talented writer both at the top of his game and dealing with a subject matter that is deeply personal and important to him. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in war history, what it means to be Australian, love, mateship or even just good writing.

Flanagan has managed to weave together a number of overlapping and interlinking stories which revolve around an Australian surgeon, Dorrigo Evans and his experiences as a camp doctor in one of the ‘death camps’ during the building of the Thai-Burma railway. The central focus of the book is the POWs’ experiences during the building of that railway, but Flanagan has also thrown into the mix a love affair Dorrigo Evans has just prior to the beginning of World War II, the Japanese officers’ perspective on life in the camps, the POWs’ experiences after returning home to Australia post-war, life in post-war Japan and a chance encounter with Dorrigo Evans’ former lover many years later. I don’t want to ruin the story by saying any more.

I was fascinated by Flanagan’s choice of the title for the book. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is one of the most famous books in Japanese literature, written by Basho, a celebrated haiku poet. Flanagan has explained that he settled on the title because if Basho’s book represents one of the high points of Japanese culture, the Japanese war effort and in particular, the treatment of POWs on the Thai-Burma railway represents one of the low points.

The characters in the book are brilliantly realised. Dorrigo Evans’ fellow POWs, like Wat Cooney, Chum Fahey, Rabbit Hendricks and Darky Gardiner, amongst others, ring true, without descending to folksy cliche. In the hands of a lesser writer (Bryce Courtney springs to mind) the POWs could have become caricatures of Australian mateship. Flanagan manages to write them as real people and explore through them ideas of what love and mateship actually mean amongst Australian males.

Flanagan has also done an incredible job of putting the reader in the shoes of the POWs. Undeniably, no-one except those who were there could truly understand the hell that life in the ‘death camps’ was. That said, Flanagan beautifully describes the sights, smells, tastes and sounds of life on the Thai-Burma railway (everything from the stench of the ulcer tent to the taste of sour scraps of rice each morning). He also brilliantly conveys the titanic struggle the POWs faced each day just to survive.

Flanagan has said that he felt that the story of life in the ‘death camps’ needed a love story in order to bring some levity to it. I think he was spot on in that regard. In the same way that the POWs needed some sort of hope in order to get through each day, the story of their suffering and of the obscenity of war needed a counterbalance like a love story.

Dorrigo Evans must now rank as one of the great characters of Australian fiction. Through him, Flanagan explores the notion of what it means to be a hero when you are fundamentally a flawed human being. Throughout his time in the camp and also afterwards, Dorrigo Evans was all too aware of his failings and fallibilities. A large part of his struggle while he was the leader of the POWs in the camp was the responsibility he felt not to let his men down in circumstances where there was ultimately little he could do to help them.

Through the insane demands placed on the POWs by the Japanese high command (where they were working day and night on the “speedo”) the tropical diseases wracking their skeletal bodies and the lack of any medicine or medical equipment, camp doctors were left to do little more than place the greatest of burden on the least unwell. Flanagan does a great job of describing his protagonist’s great fear that if he went under, all those around him would go under too. Dorrigo Evans’ deep seated conviction that he was unfit to meet the expectations of his men makes him immensely human.

It speaks volumes of Flanagan’s skill as a writer and his qualities as a human being that he manages to tell the story of the POWs without apparent bitterness or hatred. Given that Flanagan’s own father was a prisoner in the death camps, that in itself is an immense achievement. By the book’s end, having understood the experiences of those working on the Thai-Burma railway from the perspective of both captor and captive, the reader comes away with some sense of why the survivors on both sides often wanted to get on with life and not talk about what they had seen. It is a novel not quickly forgotten.