Richard Flanagan’s book, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, is this year’s winner of the Man Booker Prize, an award for a novel of excellence, which carries a considerable monetary prize, boosted book sales and fame. I am struggling to understand why it did not win the Miles Franklin, as it an exceptional portrayal of an aspect of Australian life.
This is not an easy book to read as it describes in vivid detail the sufferings and the brutal conditions in which the men on the Thai ‘Death Railway’ worked under the Japanese. We have seen pictures of the men at the end of the war in camps and the stories of what happened have been told. Still, even to those of us who grew up in the 50s in Australia, the depth of the brutality was not part of everyday life. Survivors returned and got on with their lives as best they could. Often they hid what had happened under funny stories and sanitised stories of mateship.
What had happened to the men on the ‘Death Railway’ bought out in the men an empathy and compassion beyond the funny stories. It bought out the best in them, and true mateship, which went beyond helping a friend but extended to helping a bloke you really didn’t like.
This is also a love story. The central character, Dorrigo Evans, falls in love with his uncle’s much younger wife and they have an affair before he goes to war. Evans at the time is engaged. He believes his uncle’s wife dies in a fire at the hotel and he marries on his return. Evans, a doctor, has become one of the leaders in the camp and achieves legendary status with the men. His status continues to grow on his return. Personally, I did not find the affair very interesting, as I did not empathise with the ‘aunt’ at all. Other people may feel differently. I found Dorrigo Evans wife more interesting.
This is also about the love the men have for each other as they help their fellow prisoners survive. It is about the love the men have for their families. Although the men are soldiers, there is little talk of love of country. To some extent, it examines the role the men’s love for their leaders creates the type of leaders those officers became.
Flanagan initially was telling his father’s story and the book is a revealing tribute of a son’s love to his father.
This is a difficult book to review because there are so many strands and levels to the book.
Under the most brutal conditions, we see the essential humanity of the Australian soldiers. I grew up in a time when Australians thought of the Japanese as brutes, but I remember the exquisite Japanese work my aunt brought back from Japan in the late 40s. My uncle had been with the British Occupation Forces and the family had lived there for a couple of years. Flanagan, in the later sections of the book, shows this dichotomy. The haiku through the book and the title, which is taken from one of the finest pieces of Japanese literature, show the height of Japanese culture. Life on the ‘Death Railway’ shows it at its absolute worst. We learn in the book of the stories of a guard and commandant and of their humanity.
I was able to listen to Richard Flanagan discuss the book with Richard Fidler on Conversations. The book took twelve years to write and originally started out as five books, which became one.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a complex and harrowing book. It is beautifully written and Flanagan never loses control of this complex story.
If you’re looking for a challenging reading experience that will stay with you, I can recommend The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
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