I have recently mentioned the power and intensity that a novella can bring, and indeed have been favouring novellas over longer, most often epic, tome like novels. Yet reading Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which verges on tome and is definitely epic in scope, has reminded me how much I love getting completely lost in a book for a good long week of reading. Then once finished be left feeling the loss of it, unable to shake it. You see it is one of those books that totally envelops you and also contains everything about the world within its covers. It is therefore going to be one of those books that is a complete nightmare to try and encapsulate everything it does or do justice. (Hence why this is one of the longest reviews I have ever written, despite seven sittings over a week to edit and edit it, do bear with me though as you really need to read this book.)
Chatto & Windus, hardback, 2014, fiction, 464 pages, kindly sent by the publisher
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is essentially the tale of one man’s life with all that befalls him. Alwyn ‘Dorrigo’ Evans is one of the survivors of the Death Railway in Burma where he was a prisoner of war. He was the surgeon, having the strange job of helping people escape death only to then have them healed and sent off to work that was likely to lead to death be it from sickness, exhaustion or torture. He is a man who has had a love affair with this uncle’s wife. It is really these two particular strands of Dorrigo’s life that this novel follows going back and forth developing a life lived, with it joy, despair, loss and love. This is what makes the book difficult to write about, yet reads so naturally even as it goes back and forth in time. Essentially whilst it is about Dorrigo’s life, it is also these two main strands that have defined him and that our focus is pulled towards.
Flanagan, I think, does something very clever early on as he draws us to both Dorrigo’s elderly years and his early youth very quickly in interweaving bursts. If you are worried you might get confused, as I was so I am not being patronising, you won’t, you differentiate swiftly as you read. Here we are told of something he witnesses as a young man which relates to something in his older years but it also tells us why Dorrigo doesn’t, and therefore we might not want to, consider him a war hero, as Dorrigo is a fantastically and humanly flawed character.
Inexplicably to him, he had in recent years become a war hero, a famous and celebrated surgeon, the public image of a time and a tragedy, the subject of biographies, plays and documentaries. The object of veneration, hagiographies, adulation. He understood that he shared certain features, habits and history with the war hero. But he was not him. He’d just had more success at living than at dying, and there were no longer so many left to carry the mantle for the POWs. To deny the reverence seemed to insult the memory of those who had died. He couldn’t do that. And besides, he no longer had the energy.
Before we have even come to the love story or the horrors of war, we spend time with the fascinating and conflicting character that is Dorrigo. Here is a man who people see as a hero, and who has saved many lives, yet who likes to drink drive and sleep with his wives best friends or his best friend’s wives. He is incredibly likeable is some respects and then utterly reprehensible in others. He combines both good and bad, which is something that we forget that those who die or survive fighting for the good are, we all have good and bad sides be we a victim or perpetrator of war. In fact I think the soul of The Narrow Road to the Deep North is what is good and what is evil, though more of that in a bit.
Here I wanted to say that this novel is like a cow as it has two hearts, then I realised that they have two stomachs and Dr Who has two hearts, then I realised that I should just say that the book really just has two hearts to it. Blimey, that was over complicated, let me explain.
One of the hearts of this novel, no pun intended, is the love story between Dorrigo and Amy. Here again Flanagan creates an interesting dichotomy as we read on. When the affair between Dorrigo and his uncle’s wife starts, after a wonderful meeting in a bookshop, I was thinking ‘you awful pair of saucy buggers’ soon though I was caught up in it. Frequenting readers will know I am not a fan of a love story; I was gripped by this one. Flanagan wonderfully captures the passion and almost obsession that love can form and the reckless monsters it can make us. There is nothing saccharine here. Again I cannot spoil anything but I was rooting for Dorrigo and Amy even though I knew morally I shouldn’t be. Once again Flanagan cleverly makes us question what we see as good and bad behaviour dependent on cause and circumstance.
She wanted to bury her face in those armpits there and then and taste them, bite them, shape into them. She wanted to say nothing and just run her face all over him. She wished she wasn’t wearing that print dress – green, such a bad colour, such a cheap dress, so unflattering and her breasts she wanted up and out not lost and covered up. She watched him, his muscles little hidden animals running across his back, she watched him moving, wanted to kiss that back, those arms, those shoulders, she watched him look up and see her.
One of the things I really admired about The Narrow Road to the Deep North was how whilst a story of Dorrigo Evans’ life we get to see him through other people’s eyes. Above you have the obsessional view of him from Amy, you get his rather blunt and cynical opinion of himself and through characters like Darky Gardiner you also get to see the man he is with his comrades during the war when life is at its hardest and most cruel, just as you do through Nakamura as one of those running the war camps. This also means you get different people’s perception of the war, be they on either side of it, or all the way back in Australia. War is very much the second heart of this novel.
The scenes, and indeed middle section, in the novel that are set on the Death Railway are some of the most devastating that I have ever read. Even thinking about them I genuinely get a shiver up my spine. I hate to use the term that a book was ‘bravely written’ yet I cannot think of any other way to describe Flanagan’s writing at these points. The daily life there in the jungle with the endless back breaking work, the lack of food, the illness, the beatings, the torture, the loss of life are all viscerally depicted. Some of the scenes blow your mind be it with the horror of what occurred, the frank and gruesome nature of some of the surgery Dorrigo must do to save someone, the confronting scenes told by men who like to torture or the moments of love the men show each other as they try and keep their own humanity. Utterly incredible.
As I want to be reasoned with this review and not just bang on about how amazing it is so you think I would have just lapped it anything up, even had Flanagan made Dorrigo sale across on ocean with a talking horse for company, I did have a slight wobble with the books final section. Suddenly Dorrigo’s elderly years go into overdrive and he suddenly goes through a few more devastating things and I did wonder if we needed them. Obviously I can’t give any spoilers but there was one story that made me think ‘really?’ briefly before then something else happened and I was so moved at the end I cried for about the sixth time.
A minor quibble but one I wanted to mention so you know I can see any amazing books flaws, as no book is completely perfect, though this is close. Now, of course, I am worried I haven’t mentioned some of the other amazing things like the Haiku’s that run through the novel and how they accentuate it, or how Dorrigo uses books and literature to work out his place in the world, how the book is constructed in parts that almost mirror each other or discuss some of the other characters that appear in the book but I am in danger of never shutting up. See it really was one minor quibble. Anyway…
As I mentioned earlier I think the main theme of this book is what is good and what is evil. We are taught from an early age that, whichever view you side with, there are goodies and baddies in war. The people who die fighting for the good are untouchable heroes and those who are on the bad side are all villainous and odious. Life is not that black and white and that is what The Narrow Road to the Deep North is really saying through Dorrigo Evans life and all he goes through. He is a war hero and an adulterer. Some of his fellow men suffer and are wonderful people; some are nasty pieces of work. Nakamura heads a prisoner of war camp where abominable things are happening; for him this comes from doing what he thinks is best for his country in the long term and using the enemy to create a better, great and good, future for Japan.
Flanagan looks at the good and the bad in the good and the bad. It is not comfortable and is incredibly confronting, especially in scenes described both on the Death Railway and later some insight into Japan at the time, but it makes us question and think without drip/force feeding us or even giving any answers, as all the best books should.
The journalist said he had done a story on the survivors, had met and filmed them. There suffering, he had said, was terrible and lifelong.
It is not that you know nothing about the war, young man, Dorrigo Evans had said. It is that you have learnt one thing. And war is many things.
The Narrow Road to the Dark North is a book that you experience, one of those books which makes you feel every paragraph emotionally and in your very core. Not only did it introduce me to a period in history, and indeed a place, that I knew almost nothing about; it also made me want to be kinder than I am, note how lucky I am, tell my loved ones I love them more often than I do and reminded me that not a second of life should be wasted because you never know what may come around the next corner. It is a book about war, peace, love, hate, death and life. Yes, it really is one of those life changing and life affirming books, an incredibly written modern masterpiece.
I could go on, I won’t. I will just say you need to read this book. I can see why it won the Booker. It is easily going to be one of my books of the year and I now want to read everything that Richard Flanagan has written. If you want to know more about the book, the background it has with his father (the book is dedicated to him ‘prisoner 335’) and more you can hear me and Richard in conversation here, I nearly blubbed at one point – professional. Who else has read The Narrow Road to the Deep North and what did you make of it? Which of Flanagan’s novels should I read next?