The Narrow Road to the Deep North
By Richard Flanagan
Man Booker Prize 2014
Flanagan, who deservedly won the 2014 Man Booker for The Narrow Road to the Deep North, addresses the big things of life: lost love, war and its scars, human inhumanity, command and leadership, and how a culture views itself and foreigners. He does all this with compelling storytelling, vivid prose, in barely more than 300 pages.
Briefly, from Tasmania and poor, as a young man Dorrigo Evans finds himself a doctor and a colonel in the Australian army as WWII envelopes Down Under. Before he ships out, he visits his uncle’s hotel outside of Adelaide, near where he is stationed. There, though informally engaged to Ella, of a well-heeled Melbourne family, he takes up with his uncle’s much younger wife, Amy, to find upon shipping out that he has fallen for her. Amy haunts him throughout the war, and afterwards during his marriage to Ella, and to his dying day. Why he doesn’t seek her out at war’s end is a secret best kept for discovery by you.
During the war, Dorrigo and his men participate in a variety of campaigns, from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. In the latter, the Japanese take them prisoner. They press Dorrigo and his men into building the quixotic and doomed Burma-Siam Railway, known also as the Death Railway. (Yes, the very same subject of Pierre Boulle’s satiric novel The Bridge Over the River Kwai and David Lean’s more duel-of-characters film adaptation.) It’s here were we meet many of the characters who populate Flanagan’s novel, all colorful, memorable, and tragic in their own ways. But one character, Darkly Gardiner, will, like Amy, live ceaselessly in Dorrigo’s mind, and is the source of yet another revelation, again left for your discovery.
It’s these POW sections, interlaced with Dorrigo’s personal life, for Flanagan tells the story in alternating fashion, jumping from past to present, back and forth, to great effect, especially in propelling us readers to a both infuriating (due to the circumstances) and poignant ending. To describe these sections as graphic is to give you a halfhearted warning; prepare yourself for a mounting welter of clinical and horrific details, made all the more intense with the knowledge they really happened, which some may not wish to know.
However, don’t miss them, for it’s here that Flanagan shows us the true meaning of loyalty, endurance, and above all, leadership. Known as “Big Fella” to the men, Dorrigo becomes a true leader, a national inspiration, though internally suffering terrible pain and doubt.
It’s also in these sections that Flanagan delves into the minds and motivations of the inflictors of what ultimately amounts to torture and death, the monsters, the Japanese major and his command. But are they the monsters Dorrigo and his men imagine them to be? Or do cultural barriers prevent the two sides from comprehending each other? And, you might ask, as you track the major, his colonel, and select guards into their futures and fates, does it matter, for isn’t this brand of brutality morally corrupt despite culture and cultist worship?
Parts of The Narrow Road to the Deep North will bring you to the verge of tears, others will horrify you, all will enlighten and satisfy you.
Which brings us to end with this: the end of the book is something beautiful. That beauty Flanagan captures in the final three sentences that encapsulate the essence of what drove Dorrigo, and what probably drives many of us. And after you take the journey into the deep north with Dorrigo, his love, and his men, you’ll find yourself reading these final lines over several times with emotion:
“He leant down and shone his lantern on the small miracle. He stood, bowed in the cascading rain, for a long time. Then he straightened back up and continued on his way.”
It’s for you to experience for yourself what that miracle is. w/c