Book Review – Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Before I read this book, I knew what my Goodreads review would be – 5 stars with the comment, “It’s by Flanagan, what more is there to say?” Having read it, I now know there is a lot more to say…
This book could obliquely be summarised as shifting sands. It’s pushed in one direction at the same time being pulled back from another perspective and like a whirly-whirly you may have to fall out of its thrall to see what’s going on.
It begins with the main protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, and follows his stream of consciousness until he takes us back to WWII for a brief glimpse of the Middle East before ditching us into the mire of Siam. Here we spend a day with the Australian POWs toiling on Japan’s infamous human rights atrocity, the Siam to Burma railroad – the Death Railroad.
With his beautifully poignant prose, Flanagan talks to us about human relationships – courage, stamina, small mindedness, cruelty, camaraderie, and the interrelatedness of personal plights and emotional/spiritual ones. Here the book loses its single protagonist and enfolds an ensemble of characters into its purview. This is where Flanagan excels. This is what I was expecting from him – catharsis – an overwhelming cleansing with pure admiration for the moral victory rising from enduring excruciating pain, outrage and achieving survival.
The book is written in several sections – this one can stand alone. It brings to mind Homer’s Illiad.
Both books describe episodes in wartime, including personal ones. Here each member of the POW community is placed within the framework of who they were before the war and how they relate to their fellow soldiers and antagonist in their harrowing present. Absent is a sense of God’s presence. The pagan gods of Olympus are part of the fabric of the War for Homer – whereas for Flanagan, if God exists he has forsaken the POWs. Flanagan’s heroes have only a community that has been thrust upon them by the commonality of being POWs together.
But the story doesn’t stop here. Rising above the muck of humanity is a story, or trope if you like, he has often told – one of pain, fatality, emotional distance and ultimately the redemptive power of love. He continues the stories of the soldiers he has introduced us to in the POW camp – both the Japanese persecutors and the Australian survivors.
Having experienced the indifference, the superiority and the cruelty of the Japanese officers, as a reader we expect some sort of karmic release after the war. We don’t get one. This book is not about salving the atrocities of war – it iterates the waste, the pointlessness of war and to a slightly limited degree human existence.
A downer? Yes and no. No, in that Flanagan doesn’t say that life has no value. He is saying that love – the right kind of romantic/eros love – the type we stake our hopes upon for a happily ever after – not only gives life value but it can heal and uplift the soul.
Contradictorily, there is no happily ever after in this book: although for a brief moment on the Sydney Harbour Bridge we are teased with its possibility. Dorrigo Evans, the serial cheat doesn’t get a happy ending. It’s perhaps the morally correct ending he deserves – if you believe his fiancé didn’t realise she was lying when she reported to him the death of his lover, Amy. If you believe his fiancé lied, then perhaps she too deserved the life he gave her. Their marriage was for Dorrigo more soul destroying than his experiences in the prison camp – for there his memories and thoughts of Amy sustained him.
In the denouement, if we are looking for justice and retribution via karma, we don’t get it. What we see in Nakamura, the cruel war criminal, is the redemptive power of love and family. Over time, Nakamura realises the love of the woman he chose to marry. He becomes a gentle, moral man who no one, not even himself, can reconcile with the monster he was during the war. He goes on to live a full life surrounded by family, warmth and respect – a better life than the majority of the returning Australian POWs.
Having travelled life’s path with Dorrigo can we say whether he is a good man? He was a war hero. He risked his life for his family, despite being emotionally absent and transferring to them a pattern of broken expectations to live by. He lived by the social expectations of the times – had he flouted social expectations and conventions and not married Ella and not committed his flagrant infidelities would he have been a good man?
More to the point, could he have been a good man had he married the right woman? Flanagan drives this point almost all the way home. But do we believe him? Without a Happily-Ever-After for the main character, how can a message about the redemptive power of love between man and a woman be plausible?
Perhaps Mr Flanagan needed to read a romance or two.
For a further discussion about the romance/love story elements of this book: