It took me a while to get to grips with The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan’s powerful examination of a very particular WWII story. In part, this was because of the way in which Flanagan moves from time period to time period (in the opening of the book we meet our hero, Dorrigo Evans as a child, as a POW and as an older man, dealing with the curious celebrity that accompanied surviving a terrible experience. Later, when the book gets into its flow, we move from character to character, from Dorrigo to his lover Amy to her husband Keith, to other POWs, to their Japanese captors – and again, at times, from time period to time period. Whilst Flanagan’s prose is frequently beautiful, and the reader doesn’t take long to establish which time and which character we are with, it is nevertheless disorientating. If I was to sit down opposite you and you were to tell me that you’d started it and it wasn’t for you, I would completely understand because there were points early on where I felt it wasn’t for me. But I persevered and I am glad that I did because I think The Narrow Road to the Deep North is really rather good.
So what is it about? Well, again in part, the book is about the Burma Railway, also called the Burma Death Railway (and about a half dozen other things), a project undertaken by the Japanese army at the behest of the Emperor in 1943 that employed 180,000 Asian civilian labourers (of whom 90,000 died) and over 60,000 POWs from all over the world (of whom 12,000 died). Flanagan’s book concentrates on the Australian contingent and we see Dorrigo, who was the doctor for all the sick and ailing men, as he attempts to do the best job he can, squabbling with the Japanese military as they demand so many men each day (in ever increasing quotas, as the number of ill, sick, dead and dying men increase). We are also privy to the lives of other POWs, such as Darky Gardiner struggling for sleep alongside a big man called Tiny, dreaming of a hard boiled egg he has tucked away in his bag, and Rooster MacNeice, busy trying to memorise Mein Kampf, hating everyone, pretending to be holier than thou, and Japanese soldiers, like Tenji Nakamura (who again, over the course of the book we see in other places and at other times) and Shiro Kota, a man who looks at necks first, imagining how quickly and easily a blade will pass through. Flanagan recreates a powerful sense of what life in the sweltering jungle is like, with beds filled with lice, the men forever scratching; the book also contains scenes of ferocious body horror (Dorrigo amputating a leg is something you won’t forget in a hurry) and beatings and violence.
But there is more to the book than this (and this is already a lot). Dorrigo has an affair with his uncle Keith’s wife, Amy – and Amy becomes the great love of his life, a solace during the moments of aforementioned horror as well as a kind of horror herself. The portions of the book dealing with the affair and the aftermath were the portions of the book that hooked me. Later, after the war (alongside glimpses into what other characters, POWs and Japanese soldiers, are up to), when Dorrigo is married, the shadow cast by the affair lingers. Dorrigo’s relationship with Amy, and its affect on his life and his eventual marriage (to someone else), and his role as a father, is the spine of the book. What greatly enhances this tale, though, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the quality of the writing. Here is Dorrigo:
‘For an instant he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilisations it created, greater than any god man worshipped, for it was the only true god. It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal. For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boots and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence.’
Later, when Dorrigo pays a visit to the widow of one of the men he tried to help in the jungle, she tells him about a friend of hers, a piano teacher who told her that rooms have frequencies, ‘every room has a note. You just have to find it’, and her friend had started
‘warbling away, up and down. And suddenly one note came back to us, just bounced back off the walls and rose from the floor and filled the place with this perfect hum. This beautiful sound. Like you’ve thrown a plum and an orchard comes back at you. You wouldn’t believe it, Mr Evans. These two completely different things, a note and a room, finding each other. It sounded… right. Am I being ridiculous? Do you think that’s what we mean by love, Mr Evans?’
By the climax of the book, Dorrigo has made his peace with his wife, and his life (to a certain extent), again, Flanagan feels wise, with experience you sense has been earned. If the following doesn’t move you then quite possibly you’d be right in thinking the book isn’t for you:
‘There grew between him and Ella a conspiracy of experience, as if the raising of children, the industry of supporting each other in ways practical and tender, and the sum of years and then decades of private conversations and small intimacies – the odour of each other on waking; the trembling sound of each other’s breathing when a child was unwell; the illnesses, the griefs and cares, the tendernesses, unexpected and unbidden – as if all this were somehow more binding, more important and more undeniable than love, whatever love was.’
Difficult, then, certainly, a challenging read, without a doubt, but also beautiful and profound and moving and important, too, in some senses. Proof if proof were needed that sometimes you have to chip away at a book to earn its pleasures.
Any Cop?: Fair to say not our usual kind of book, one of those that might well have slipped beneath the radar were it not for its place on the Booker longlist but we are heartily glad we read it.