Dorrigo Evans, protagonist of Richard Flanagan’s novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, is a man of many facets. Born in poverty in Tasmania, well-educated in Australia, a surgeon by training, a life-long ladies man, a prisoner-of-war during World War II, a national hero and regarded by many as a national treasure, a man always at odds with himself, Dorrigo also is an avid reader. He believes, in fact, that a good book “leaves you wanting to reread the book,” while “a great book compels you to reread your soul.” By that measure, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a great book.
I found this novel excruciating but worth every agonizing page. Dorrigo himself presents a fascinating character study because his impulses are often so contradictory. Whereas his personal relationships turn self-destructive, over and over again, his wartime demeanor remains impeccable. Almost single-handedly he leads his fellow POWs and holds their sanity together as they slave to build the Thai-Burma Death Railway. As the highest-ranking officer, he sees to the health of his men, tries as best he can to protect them from the vagaries of their Japanese captors, and generates good will and good rapport whenever possible.
Flanagan chooses to portray Dorrigo and his multiple worlds in almost surrealistic fashion. The time frame of the novel follows an associative rather than a linear pattern. Nothing happens chronologically; one event simply leads to another in Dorrigo’s mind. Yet the pattern is easy to follow, beginning with Dorrigo’s earliest boyhood memories and extending into his 70s where he still searches for a soul-mate and settles for less. In between, his wartime traumas resonate back and forth, back and forth.
The middle sections of The Narrow Road to the Deep North are the most difficult to navigate. Flanagan moves away from Dorrigo’s direct input and instead enters the minds of various POWs and their Japanese tormentors.The reader watches the Australians die, one by one, and also learns of the cultural and military pressures suffered by the Japanese. In some ways, Dorrigo stands outside this portion of the narrative, for he is a survivor, albeit a tormented one. The men “were captives of the Japanese, and he was the prisoner of their hope.” Psychologically, Dorrigo must hold things together, even as the men physically fall prey to the horrors surrounding them.
I found myself almost unable to bear reading the details, and wondered how Flanagan managed to write such graphic passages. At the same time, however, I found myself thinking about that line found early in the novel, “a great book compels you to reread your soul.” Truly, The Narrow Road to the Deep North compels any reader to imagine him or herself in such dire circumstances, and to wonder how such experiences might affect the remainder of one’s life. It was no wonder that Dorrigo’s personal relationships were so peculiarly isolated and so fraught with misdirections.
The novel ends, however, with Dorrigo on a narrow road heading deeply into his soul as well as into a climactic conflagration. I can’t say more without ruining the finale, but I can safely say that Flanagan finishes his narrative in a metaphoric holocaust that sounds exactly the right chord. Dorrigo’s characterization and his story come together in satisfying ways. For those interred in the psychology of war, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a great treasure to unearth. Buyer beware, however; this novel is horrifically explicit about prison camp agonies and anguishes. As Flanagan surely intended, the details are hell to read. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Richard Flanagan: Gould’s Book of Fish; The Sound of One Hand Clapping; Wanting; Death of a River Guide; The Unknown Terrorist; And What Do You Do, Mr. Gable?; A Terrible Beauty: History of the Gordon River Country; Codename Iago: The Story of John Friedrich (co-writer); Parish-Fed Bastards, A History of the Politics of the Unemployed in Britain, 1884-1939.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is the winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize.
Tags:World War II POWs/Thai-Burma Death Railway/Tasmania