THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH – My Book of the Month. May

by admin on May 13, 2019

Richard Flanagan’s novel was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize of 2014 and I can see why. It’s a mesmerising story of how one man’s flight from an impossible situation led to an even worse one and how he somehow managed to survive it at great cost.

A doctor, Dorrigo Evans, falls in love with his old uncle’s young wife and they begin an affair that is brought to an abrupt end by its discovery by the uncle. Feeling that she will never leave his uncle out of a misguided loyalty to him, the doctor enlists in the army. He is subsequently captured by the Japanese with the fall of Singapore.

Thus begins a nightmarish account of the building of the infamous Burmese railroad by Allied prisoners of war. Dr. Dorrigo Evans, by virtue of his medical status eventually becomes the highest ranking survivor of this impossible situation. He drives himself relentlessly out of a sense of responsibility for the lives of his men, struggling daily to keep them alive with little or no medical supplies, performing operations with no anesthetic.

The Japanese officers force their own men into daily beatings and punishments of the POWs, in a vain attempt to get the railway through the jungle completed and allow Japan to win the war in Asia. They justify their brutal treatment because the prisoners surrendered rather than die honourably, thus branding themselves as cowards and less than men.

The doctor’s men die slowly and agonisingly from this relentless treatment as the war grinds on. Dorrigo dreams of the woman he has abandoned and everyone clings hopelessly to the shreds of their lives. The Japanese to their peculiar standard of honour and the Emperor, the POWs to their sense of loyalty to each other which binds them closer the more they suffer and  Dorrigo, the doctor, to his mission to keep them alive to survive the war.

Finally the war ends and the remaining pitiful few survivors return home to face the wreckage of their lives and the mystification of their families who no longer recognise them. It is only when they have reunions with the other POW survivors, can they find any joy in life.

The doctor, who had become engaged to another woman whom he barely knew before the war, now marries her although he is not in love with her. He thinks only of his uncle’s wife. He buries himself in his new civilian life as a war hero in an attempt to forget her, but only manages to estrange his family.

His uncle has died and his wife thinks of reviving her relationship with Dorrigo. They almost meet but both lose their nerve and return to their empty lives.

NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH has been rightly described as a modern WAR AND PEACE in its breadth and devastating power to move us.

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