The Narrow Road to the Deep North was the 2014 Booker Prize winner – and it certainly deserves that kind of status.
It tells the life story of Dorrigo Evans, who was born in a rural and deprived Tasmania, and went on to become a doctor, a surgeon and a survivor of the prison camps, working on the Death Railway in Burma during WW2.
Dorrigo was clearly a talented and able young man. His education took him into a new world of privilege and success, and brought him the love of a beautiful young woman. However at the outbreak of war Dorrigo is entranced by a provocative and charismatic young woman he meets in a bookshop. It turns out she is married to his estranged uncle. There is a short affair, and then Dorrigo is whisked away to war. I know – it sounds a bit far fetched – that a chance encounter led him to meet and fall in love with his uncle’s wife!! But the rest of the book isn’t dependent at all on similar coincidences and I could overlook this rather grim one.
The book shows different aspects of Dorrigo’s life – but the main focus is on the prison camp. This section is especially gruesome and only suitable for those with fairly strong stomachs. The suffering of the prisoners is recounted in detail along with some rather horrific operations carried out by Dorrigo in his role as surgeon.
Later he returns home to a life of some small fame, and to a loveless marriage – his real love – Amy, his uncle’s wife, is dead, he has been told by letter in the prison camp. Her absence becomes effectively a symbol of the emptiness in Dorrigo’s heart – an absence caused by his war experience, and that leaves him cold and alone, searching for meaning in a series of meaningless sexual encounters.
So much for the plot. What’s really interesting in this book is the way that the author is able to put himself inside the minds of so many different protagonists. We get to hear the story from the point of view of the prisoners and their captors, and Flanagan follows the lives of each after the war, showing how the consequences of abstract political ideas and uncontrollable international events impinge on the lives and spirits of ordinary people, both Japanese and Australian.
Flanagan is a clever writer and toys with the reader’s emotions: the climax is especially dramatic as Dorrigo is caught in a bush fire attempting to rescue his wife and children. There are also revelations about Amy that provide a dramatic and moving conclusion. All very good – though I was left a little with the feeling that I was being manipulated, that it was all just too emotional, too deliberately tragic.
Nevertheless this is a very good book – more compelling as it nears the end – and Flanagan is clearly a very talented writer.