The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan


Last year’s Booker Prize winning novel is the second book I have read by Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan.  It compares favourably with the first – Gould’s Book of Fish – and both deal with internment.  This is based on true stories of Australian soldiers captured by the Japanese in WWII in Burma who were made to work, essentially to their death, on what became known as the Burma Death Railway.

The story centres on an army Doctor, Dorrigo Evans, who rises to prominence both in the camp, where he becomes the commanding officer, and after the war in celebratory medical circles as his story becomes known.

It begins before the war when Evans falls deeply in love with the wife of his uncle, takes us through his horrendous experiences in Burma and, after that, his loveless marriage and constant philandering.

Flanagan introduces us to a motley crew of army characters, not all of whom are sympathetic and to the Japanese commanding officer, Nakamura, who strikes up a respectful relationship with Evans despite his daily torturing and starving of Dorrigo’s men.

The main focus of the novel is on the war years which are truly breathtakingly cruel at times and the mental scars it creates on Evans, and Nakamura who becomes a sought after war criminal and battles with his sense of duty to the Emperor (he was only carrying out instructions) and his moral compass that challenges this.

Evans’ post war life, although celebrated, is a mess emotionally and his loss of Amy, who he assumes dead following news of an explosion in her husbands pub, is never really overcome.

Flanagan is a wonderful writer and when on form drives you along at top speed; the scene in a bush fire in Tasmania is spectacular, as is the whole jungle section, but at times the pace drops and his love of dust motes (that appear several times to create atmosphere) can drag a little.

I preferred Gould’s Book of Fish but this is a fine novel and comes recommended, although not unreservedly.