Tuesday, August 23, 2016
Review of The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (2013, Vintage)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North charts the life of Dorrigo Evans, a flawed war hero who is haunted by his love for a woman with whom he had a brief affair and the horror of a Japanese prisoner of war camp. It’s essentially an exploration of the human condition and its different forms and qualities – love, regret, cruelty, honour, jealousy, friendship, savagery, doubt, hope, commitment, infidelity – and of culture and social relations, while also detailing the history, context and horrors of the construction of ‘The Line’ – the railway built by the Japanese using forced prisoner of war and local forced labour. Rather than use a linear narrative, Flanagan switches between different points in Evans life in a seemingly random order that actually pivot around a single day in 1943 when he receives a letter from home, Darky Gardiner is thrashed to death, and Jack Rainbow dies on a makeshift operating table. He also switches the focus to other characters, notably the Japanese camp commander who survives the war and rebuilds his own life, but also Amy, the woman Dorrigo loved, his wife, Darky Gardiner, a Korean prison guard, and a number of the Australian prisoners. What emerges is a series of contrasts and juxtapositions – love/indifference, freedom/confinement, compassion/cruelty, carefree/haunted – with threads of connection such as the camaraderie of prisoners, family ties, and in the case of Dorrigo and his Japanese commander a fascination with the beauty and meaning of poetry and literature. The result is a vivid, haunting, moving and thought-provoking tale of love and loss told through some wonderful prose. A story that I sense I will continue to mull over for some time.