Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review of The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (2013, Vintage)

Dorrigo Evans has risen from rural poverty in Tasmania to become a doctor.  He joins the Australian Army and is preparing to ship out and join the fight in the Second World War when he meets Amy, the young wife of his uncle.  Despite being engaged to Elle, Dorrigo starts a passionate affair with Amy, but then the war intervenes.  First he lands in Syria, fighting the Vichy French, then transfers to Java where he is captured by the Japanese.  With a thousand men under his command he’s put to work building ‘The Line’ – a railway through Thailand to Burma.  In the forced labour camp he assumes the persona of The Big Fella – the compassionate but hard-nosed commander who strives to keep his men alive, forcing officers to share the work of ordinary ranks, negotiating with the Japanese, begging and stealing where necessary, and looking after the sick and dying.  Thoughts about Amy sustain him, but then in a rare letter from home he learns of a tragedy from home.  When he returns to Australia after the war he quickly finds himself married to Elle and resumes his career as a surgeon.  But he’s haunted by the war and Amy and continues to play The Big Fella, though with an ever-growing list of indiscretions, including a string of affairs. 

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.


Rick Robinson said...

This one is completely new to me, both author and novel, and it sounds, unless it gets syrupy, well worth a try. Thanks, Rob.

Rob Kitchin said...

It's not syrupy. It won the Man Booker prize a couple of years ago.