The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan was the Booker Prize winner for 2014. It mainly follows the life of Dorrigo Evans, a boy from a small town in Australia, who grew up to become a doctor and soldier, and later suffered at the hands of the Japanese as a Prisoner of War during World War II.
The story starts as Dorrigo Evans, now in his 70’s recalls one of his first memories – stepping in and out of a beam of sunshine while at church with his mother and grandmother. Back then, he still lived in a small town in the middle of nowhere, where life was much simpler. From there he proceeds to recount how, unlike his other siblings, he was fortunate enough to be able to go to school, and later, move out of his hometown to study medicine in the city. He would eventually become a doctor, a surgeon, and a soldier during the war. Presently, he has become somewhat of a national war hero and celebrity, being the star of countless documentaries about the war. He has since been awarded countless medals of honor and bravery for his efforts in saving the lives of the men under his command in the POW camps in Siam. Honors and praise he feels he does not deserve.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North focuses less on actual plot than it does on the different characters, and though the novel primarily follows the life of Dorrigo Evans, it also shines a light on the lives of other characters throughout the novel. Of Dorrigo Evans, it tells of his love life, a passionate relationship with his uncle’s wife, before joining the war, and later of his married life, and his life as a doctor and prisoner of war.
Much of the novel is dedicated to Dorrigo Evans’ time in the POW camp, working on the Burma-Siam Railway, also known as the Death Railway, under the Japanese in 1943. As Corporal, Dorrigo Evans was responsible for the 700 men under his command, and as a doctor, he literally, had to save their lives from the cruel Japanese. Working on an impossible deadline, their Japanese captors worked the POWs non-stop, rain or shine, night and day. Because of their squallid living conditions and impossible work hours, the POWs were tired, malnourished, and including Dorrigo Evans, suffered from multiple illnesses and diseases. Working in the jungles of Siam during the monsoon, with little protection against the elements and insects, and with very poor nutrition, the POWs suffered from infections, dengue, malaria, beri-beri, pellagra, cholera, and other illnesses that without treatment, could prove life threatening. Aside from the harsh living and working conditions, the POWs were also in danger of random beatings and torture from their Japanese captors.
The latter parts of the novel focuses on the lives of the men who survived the war and the POW camps, including Dorrigo Evans, and how they assimilated back into society after they were freed.
It is during these two parts of the novel that other characters are heard from, not only the POWs under Dorrigo Evans, who, in their own way, tried to make the most of their situation in order to survive, but also from the Japanese officers, and guards who were declared war criminals or imprisoned after the war. After the war, Dorrigo Evans, the POWs who survived the camps, and their Japanese captors had to find new ways of living again, with their families, their friends, and other members of society. They had to survive the new challenge of forgetting the past and moving on with their lives, any way they can. The author writes from the perspectives of both sides; those who suffered, and those who caused the suffering, though, everything being relative, it’s hard to decide which is which, or whether anyone is guilty of anything at all.
Because it is not really a plot-based book, I sometimes found parts of it a bit tedious to read, especially when it focuses on Dorrigo Evans, a complex character, who, though the protagonist of the novel, is not, to me, a very likable character. He is deeply flawed, but comes out as a very realistic character, who despite being viewed by most as a hero, is not really a hero, but just an ordinary man, and not even a good man, at that. For me, there were other characters in the novel who were much more interesting than Dorrigo Evans. There were the other POW soldiers under his command, and there were the Japanese officers who survived the war. Of all the characters in the novel though, the one who really stood out for me was the POW Darky Gardiner, a very likable character, who despite the hopelessness of their lives at the POW camps always tried to find something good in every situation.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is not a very easy book to describe, nor is it an easy book to digest. At times, its content even makes it hard to read; especially of the cruelty suffered by the POWs at the hands of their Japanese captors. It is a very complex novel where the author burrows deep to describe a range of emotions and other things that define humanity; love, lust, pride, honor, loss, suffering, remembering, and forgetting. It tackles many cultural issues, similarities, differences and prejudices that are often the cause of wars and misunderstandings. It is a love story, an anti-war story, it is a story about life, with characters that we are all familiar with and can relate to. The novel describes the exciting, as well as the mundane; the good, as well as the bad; significant events, as well as meaningless ones; big emotions, as well as trivial ones, everything that adds up to what it means to be alive in an ever-changing world.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2014) – Richard Flanagan
Chatto and Windus; 464 pages
Personal rating: 3/5
*Similar to The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng