I read this at around Christmastime last year; it’s an Australian novel that won the 2014 Booker, so it was on the gift list, of course. Got to admit, I’d never heard of Flanagan before I read this. I have since attempted one of his earlier books, which was so overwritten I couldn’t stomach it. So how come The Narrow Road to the Deep North caused such a stir? I confess: I had a bit of a love / hate relationship with this one, particularly with the cheesy writing – it was only when I got to the end did I realise what a powerful impact it had had on me, and I noticed how bloody miserable I was to finish it.
The plot follows Dorrigo Evans, a surgeon who becomes a Prisoner of War on one of the infamous Burma death railways in 1943. The story is not told chronologically but instead opens on Dorrigo as an old man, reflecting on his life. There is a lot of detail about his experience in the POW camp, with flashbacks to Evans’s earlier life and romance with his uncle’s young wife. Flanagan supposedly based the war plot points on his own father’s experience as a Japanese POW and wrote the novel as a tribute to him, which added an element of authenticity to the very jarring scenes (unfortunately, Flanagan’s dad died before the book was published). It was these sections, in particular, that were intensely moving, powerfully written and evocative, and also what drew me to Dorrigo as a protagonist – probably one of the best I’ve come across (for reasons I can’t put my finger on).
It’s a shame, then, that we had to endure the dodgy romance running alongside it. Dorrigo’s affair with his uncle’s wife Amy was occasionally so overdone it made me cringe, reading like bad erotica; it’s probably no accident that it made it into the shortlist for the Bad Sex Awards 2014 (though, to be honest, to be shortlisted for both the Booker and the Bad Sex Awards for the same book is an achievement any author with half a sense of humour would be proud of). At times the romance WAS written well – particularly in the early days, when both Dorrigo and Amy are torn between paralysing sexual tension and the implications of acting on it – but as the plot continued, it got worse and worse. Thankfully, these questionable areas were compensated by the quality of the POW camp sections, which were often so absorbing it was hard to put the novel down.
I’m unsure what it was about Dorrigo Evans that made him such a captivating protagonist. I certainly didn’t connect with him at the beginning, when we see him struggling under the weight of being a revered war hero (a title he doesn’t think he deserves), and being unfaithful to his wife. He is a flawed protagonist, but as the book progresses, it’s hard to dispute how much he did for his fellow prisoners in their terrible circumstances, using a combination of highly refined surgical skills, courage, and, well, common decency. After emerging from the camp, Dorrigo seems to find more fulfilment in suffering and trauma, which is perhaps an inevitable post-war attitude. His significant relationship with Amy happened prior to his time in the Burma death railway, and it made me wonder if the relationship would have had as much meaning had he found her afterwards. Indeed, they do cross paths years later, but neither choose to speak to the other – too much has passed since their affiar. Dorrigo is by no means the exclusive focus of the novel; Flanagan inhabits the minds of everyone involved, from fellow prisoners to Japanese officers, exploring the mind and mentality behind each individual.
It’s probably fairly morbid of me but I connected to Dorrigo the most during the times when he was suffering. There was one powerful instance in the camp when he is ordered to confirm a certain number of men are fit for work (read: fit for exhausting labour) when, in fact, the majority of men can barely stand up. As he haggles with the numbers, he is forced to hold up an ill man whilst being repeatedly slapped in the face for downright insisting (with his Hippocratic Oath in mind, no doubt) that the men’s health be protected. He’s concentrating so hard on standing upright, on keeping his weight balanced, on holding the man while feeling the painful blows again and again – it’s a shocking scene, and it’s easy for the reader to very intensely connect with Dorrigo.
The plot contained the occasional twist or surprise, but generally the structure meant you were expecting most of what was to come, and in that way it became a little more painful, perhaps. By the end I was a little bit obsessed with it. I strongly recall that moment of finishing it – at my sister’s house, which must have been close to a year ago – and feeling a great sense of despair, which, despite my horrendously long reading list, is a feeling I don’t have very often.
So, on Goodreads, it got four stars. Not the full five, owing to the dodgy romance, but you can be sure this is one story that will stay with me for a while.
[Coming next: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood]