The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Vintage Books/ Random House
Review copy courtesy the publisher
Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a novel which brings poetry, honesty, beauty and dignity to the now well known tales of atrocity along the Thai Burma Railway, or, The Railway of Death.
Dorrigo Evans, named (it is revealed later in the text) for the town in which he is born, is a puzzle of a man. He is imbued with a deep sense of selflessness, which baffles even him, when it comes to his army comrades, but in his personal life he is unable to remain faithful to his wife Ella, whom he marries because he believes she is the perfect partner for a man destined to be great, and also because everyone expects him to. Quite beautiful, if misguided, is Dorrigo's sentiment that sex is not unfaithfulness, but sleeping all night beside someone else is, something he never does. His inability to settle, is it revealed, comes from a torturous experience as a Weary Dunlop figure in a POW camp in Siam, and a pre war affair with his Uncle's wife Amy which leaves him searching for a consuming passion he is unable to recreate with anyone else.
This is a novel full of missed connections; Amy believes Dorrigo is dead, and Dorrigo believes Amy is dead, both being misinformed by their spouses. When they pass one another on a Sydney street, neither one knows what to do, and they do not speak. Months later, Amy dies of a cancer that goes un-named. Dorrigo, on the other hand, is a skilled surgeon and a war hero. He is asked to write a forward to a book of sketches which he smuggled out of the war, sketches by a man named Rabbit Hendricks. Rabbit died of cholera, and it was Dorrigo's sad duty to burn him on the funeral pyre. The sketches were tossed on to be burned as well, but were thrown out of the fire to land at Dorrigo's feet, open to a sketch of Darky Gardiner for whom Dorrigo had a lot of respect. Darky and Dorrigo, it is later revealed, had more of a blood connection than they ever could have known, although the tale of Dorrigo's brother's affair with Darky's mother is told in passing and seems like an afterthought; a moment of weak writing in which the author attempted to imbue their friendship with a mystical significance that really wasn't needed.
It is also a novel of deep historical complexity. While Dorrigo is undoubtedly the protagonist, and we see the story from the Allied point of view, Flanagan is also careful not to draw the Japanese and Korean guards in the camp as evil caricatures. He explains their viewpoint and their ethos, giving each enough background to show that their thinking as a culture was worlds away from what the Australian soldiers would have known. While each main character is undoubtedly twisted: Colonel Kota with his lust for necks to severe and 'The Goanna' with his stories of beating a dog to death out of spite at his treatment as a Korean; they are fully realised people and even occasionally have redeeming moments, as Nakamura does once he becomes a father and husband.
While the novel has a poetic and atmospheric style that makes it difficult to become engrossed in at first, it is worth pursuing, because it is a beautiful novel, a realistic novel, and one that makes my heart ache with jealousy because I did not write it. I would definitely read more of Richard Flanagan's work after reading this.