The Narrow Road To The Deep North
Random House AU
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley (my husband also bought a copy and I read the paperback version)
In 1943, Dorrigo Evans is an Australian surgeon in a Japanese POW camp working with others on the Thai-Burma railway, also known as the Death Railway. With the Japanese determined to get the railway built for the Emperor, they push men beyond their physical and mental limits, ignorant of the fact that they’re dropping dead of exhaustion, starvation and disease everywhere. They don’t care about the wellbeing of their prisoners and they couldn’t care less about the Geneva Convention on treatment of prisoners of war. What they care about is honour and serving the Emperor. And serving the Emperor means getting the railway built. To fail would be a loss of honour so great that no Japanese man would be able to live with himself.
Dorrigo has a position of authority and he uses it to try and negotiate more food and medicine for his men. Their camps are overrun with cholera, with dysentery, with beriberi, with tropical ulcers that are eating the men’s flesh right down to the bone. But even in the midst of all this agony, suffering and starvation, Dorrigo is still haunted by the love affair with his uncle’s wife back in Australia two years ago before he shipped out. They met without realising who each other were and embarked on a passionate secret relationship after the discovery. Dorrigo swore he’d return for her but news he receives whilst on the railway changes his life forever.
Australian author Richard Flanagan needs no introduction for most people. The Tasmanian writer has won numerous awards for his previous novels. Gould’s Book of Fish won the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Prize and Wanting was the New Yorker book of the year, the Observer book of the year and winner of the Queensland Premier’s Prize, the Western Australian Premier’s Prize and the Tasmania Book Prize. My husband sent me Flanagan’s second novel, The Sound of One Hand Clapping when we first met as a kind of literary compatibility test I suppose. I should mention that I failed that test because this is the first of Flanagan’s novels that I have completed. But it’s a good place to start in many ways.
Flanagan’s father is a survivor of the horror of the Thai-Burma railway and this book delves deep into the reality of the prisoners of war. Flanagan spares no intimate detail as he describes what the men were forced to do, slashing their way through thick jungle over rivers in utterly miserable and life-threatening conditions. The men were starved, medicine was non-existent and the conditions brought a new meaning to the term ‘unsanitary’. And this book lets you have all of that in all of its glory. A word of warning: don’t attempt to read the middle of this book if you are eating. Or going to eat. Or ever want to eat again at some stage. It is gruesome, it is graphic, it is quite honestly, horrible stuff. My husband warned me that it was hard going but I assumed he was talking of torture, or graphically described killings. No, no he was not. He was talking of other things and although it’s difficult to get through, it’s a necessary part of the story. Because that’s what conditions must have been like in a camp that was overrun with people suffering dysentery, cholera and various other ailments that attack the physical body.
And somehow in all of this suffering, Flanagan manages to build a rapport between the men, a relationship as they struggle. They help each other, covering for each other when the weakest are too weak to work, they risk themselves to clean the sick and tend to them even though in most cases it is useless. They give the men funerals after their deaths, even after the pastor himself has succumbed. And one of the best scenes in the book for me occurs after the end of the war, when some of the survivors visit the local fish and chip shop back in Australia of a buddy who didn’t make it. They carry out something that he always wanted to do before the war and later, feeling bad for the damage they caused, they go and apologise to the owner and explain. He invites them to sit and share a meal with him, telling them to forget about paying him back. It really epitomises the bond that these men developed. Even though they got so sick of the guy’s story about the fish and chip shop, they honoured him in a way that they knew he would enjoy. Perhaps it was the only way in which they could.
Although there is a love story wound through this book, for me it definitely took second place to the story of the railway and the war. Dorrigo is at best of times, a difficult character and he’s at his most readable advocating for the prisoners and attempting to stand up to the Japanese, not by brute force, but by changing the way they think of honour. It often doesn’t work, but he tries to do it anyway. I did like the fact that the novel explained the fates of most of the characters, even long after the war had ended and we weren’t really left wondering about people.
Jennifer Byrne used the term ‘masterpiece’ to describe this novel when the ABC’s The Book Club discussed it recently. The story is grim but the writing is utterly superb. Kind of makes me wonder how I failed that test so many years ago!
Book #296 of 2013
The Narrow Road To The Deep North is the 16th book read for the Australian Authors ChallengeIt is also the 16th novel read for the Literary Exploration Challenge. This time I’m ticking off the category of Literary Fiction