Don’t expect good cheer and humor from The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It is the often harrowing novel based on the experiences of Richard Flanagan’s father as a POW during World War II, one of the hundreds of thousands of Australian soldiers forced to build a railroad through Burma with not much more than their bare hands. A much-sanitized version of this story was the basis for The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Dorrigo Evans is the main character of the novel, a surgeon who ends up being in charge of the prisoners simply by virtue of not having died. We meet him first as an older man, one of Australia’s greatest war heroes, feeling no self-worth, unhappily married, and unfaithful to his wife. The novel moves back and forth in time between the days when he is waiting to be shipped overseas at the beginning of the war until his death years later. In the summer before he went to war, we learn, he fell madly in love and had an affair with his uncle’s young wife Amy.
I think it is interesting that the New York Times reviewer thought this affair was a huge flaw in the novel while the Washington Post reviewer thought it was beautiful. I agree with neither of them (although I lean more toward the Times reviewer’s opinion) but think the Times reviewer was off base in blaming the affair for keeping Dorrigo from pulling his life together after the war. It wasn’t the affair at all but the memory of the decisions Evans was forced to make during the war. At one point, he must decide whether to try to save Darky Gardiner an undeserved beating or try to save another man’s leg. Both die, and the later revelation of Darky’s true identity makes this more painful. At another point Dorrigo is made to decide which of his starving, disease-ridden men must march 100 miles north of the camp. He picks the men with boots, reasoning they might have a chance of making it alive.
Occasionally, we see the thoughts of the men’s captors, the Japanese officers or Korean guards. In all his life after, only for a moment does the Japanese Major Nakamura have the slightest doubt of his behavior during the war. To him, the Australian soldiers had shamed themselves by surrendering and were being given a chance to redeem themselves by serving the Emperor. We occasionally also get glimpses of the brutality of mind that characterizes the Japanese military.
Whether you like this book or not, it is not one you will soon forget. This novel won the Booker Prize last year. Although I preferred several of the other short- and long-listed books for the prize, I still found it compelling reading.