Winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize, Richard Flanagan's 'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' is a harrowing, graphic, though beautiful portrayal of the effects of war and the fragility of love. At points it is not easy to read; the writing is at once sublime but horrific in its meaning. Sentences are haunted by the savagery of war; caked in mud, disease and death, while never without a fading symbol of hope. It is a masterpiece which disturbs you for days after, much like the memories of its protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, whose mind is fractured and troubled by war and a love lost.


Dorrigo Evans is a prisoner of war of the infamous Burma railway of 1943. Known as 'the Line', the railway is organised like a Pharaohic slave system. Allied POWs are beaten, hungry, riddled with cholera and ulcers, all to serve the mad ambitions of the Japanese Empire. In this, Evans is a military surgeon, responsible for hundreds of Australian POWs, with the impossible task of trying to keep his men alive while following the orders of his superiors hell-bent on completing the railway line. After the war, Evans is not only haunted by his experiences on 'the Line' but also by a love affair with his uncle's wife prior to the war. This love affair not only puts his military experiences in perspective, but also highlights Evan's inability to completely communicate his emotions.


While the narrative is loosely chronological, Flanagan expertly fractures some events, signifying Evan's mind in retrospect; obsessed by the horrific details of the Burma camp and the fading images of his love-affair. In some ways, the structure of the novel is not too far removed from the likes of 'Birdsong' by Sebastian Faulks: starting with a love affair, before moving on to the war and its after effects. Indeed, 'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' should be judged in equal merit. What 'Birdsong' did for the First World War, 'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' does for the prisoner of war camps of the Second World War. I had no idea of the brutal conditions of 'the Line' as Flanagan depicts, and surely we cannot forget either. There are many suggestions in the book that many of the soldiers lost hope; that in time all memory of the railway and their lives would vanish and never be remembered. Flanagan corrects this. His father survived 'the line' and thus the memory of him and others humbly survive through such a tale. 


Furthermore, descriptions of the conditions of the Burma Railway in 1943 are graphic to the extreme. Although the camaraderie of the Australian soldiers is as expected, what Flanagan does so well is to depict the slow degradation of hope, friendship and morality, as together they try to survive in a hellish environment. The revelations of what happens to particular characters, both Australian and Japanese, in the aftermath of the war, is also harrowing in its detail and poignant in its ambitions to explain or to describe their inner lives. As it should be, we are left with a sense of the utter meaninglessness of the war and the fleeting moments available to us in both life and love. Sometimes it is not enough to even survive. 


Some passages nearly brought me to tears, as the best of novels should. However, I can't help but feel that this novel transcends its story. Now looking ahead at the 21st century, we should not fail in looking back to the 20th. I'm sure there are so many more stories to tell about the First or Second World War, but 'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' reminds us of events, far from us now, that we should never let fade. 

© 2020 by Chris Soul. 

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