The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
What can I say about this book that has not been effusively said already? I am sorry to say I put off reading this book for a while because I knew some of it dealt with POWs along the infamous railway in Burma. Whilst the passages about the camps and the railway are harrowing, I feel for the first time after reading them that I finally have an inkling of how horrendous these places, and their place in history, were. Flanagan does not step back the atrocity, he takes it on and it is a memorable and emotional experience. As one by one members of Dorrigo Evan’s company die or cholera, malnutrition, gangrene or beating by the Japanese colonel and his guards, part of him dies too and us as well.
Not all the imagery is horrific, thankfully, and Flanagan’s prose soars. His descriptive powers are elegant and precise.
“Backdropped by woodlands of writhing peppermint gums and silver wattle that waved and danced in the heat, it
was hot and hard in summer, and hard, simply hard, in winter.” (p. 4)
This can only be an Australian landscape being described here. A few pages on, there is a superb description of a game of kick to kick in the school yard, with its pecking order and etiquette (recently featured in the sport section of the Sunday Age) that captures it perfectly.
“The smell of eucalypt bark, the bold blue light of the Tasmanian midday, so sharp he had to squint hard to stop it slicing his eyes, the heat of the sun on his taut skin, the hard, short shadows of the others, the sense of standing on a threshold, of joyfully entering a new universe while your old still remained knowable and holdable and not yet lost – all these things he was aware of, as he was of the hot dust, the sweat of the other boys, the laughter, the strange pure joy of being with others”
Dorrigo Evans is an enigmatic character and the book swings back and forth between his life before and after WWII, and the years in the POW camp where he served as doctor. In his life before the war, Dorrie has an affair with Amy, who happens to be his uncle’s wife. Amy is his touchstone through the rest of his life – as the one woman whom he really truly loved.
As well as Dorrigo’s story, we also glimpse the lives of some of the Japanese officers and guards after the war, as well as some of Dorrigo’s men who survived the Camp.
I will not give spoilers here, but my favourite part of the book occurs quite late in the story, at a place called Nikitaris Fish Shop. As you read the novel, look for this name – you will understand once you reach the end of the novel. The other moment I found very affecting involved Dorrigo finding out more about Darky Gardiner (a prisoner brutally bashed to death in front of the other prisoners over the course of several hours) – it was truly a gasp-out-loud moment.
Thank you, Richard Flanagan, for being a beacon in the Australian literary landscape, both as a writer and a damned fine human being too.
Defintiely a book for ages 16 and up. Anyone younger would find it too much to bear I think.