‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Richard Flanagan


2014, 480 p.

There are spoilers in this review

I haven’t been writing this blog long enough for it to capture my deep admiration for Richard Flanagan. Only his recent book Wanting has made it into this blog.  Over the last twenty years I’ve read all his books, with the exception of The Unknown Terrorist, which I have on my shelves and which may surface as part of my #TBR20 challenge (once I start it!). For me,  Gould’s Book of Fish is right up near the top of my list of best Australian novels.  So I was delighted that Flanagan won the Booker Prize for this book, although I must admit that my praise of it is not completely unalloyed.

The main character in The Narrow Road to the Deep North is Dorrigo Evans, met in the opening pages as an elderly, famous doctor, lionized for his role in tending to the men on the Burma Railway.  He is uncomfortable about the acclaim that has attached to him but not enough to eschew it completely.He enjoys women and has had a series of extramarital affairs throughout his life. He doesn’t really like himself very much.  One’s mind turns immediately to  ‘Weary’ Dunlop – the iconic war-hero doctor of the Thai-Burma railway-  although I’m in no position to know how closely the fictional book parallels the real-life.

We follow Evans from his childhood in Tasmania, his move from humble beginnings  into ‘society’ as the handsome young medical student and then his sudden encounter in a bookshop with Amy- a young woman who, he later learns, is his uncle’s wife. Interwoven with this love story is the muddy, oppressive heat and downpours of the Burma jungle as Evans,  now a Prisoner of War, is placed in an unsought leadership position because of his medical skills.  He holds the power to order men to stay in the rudimentary camp hospital, but he is forced into a nightmarish bargaining ritual with their Japanese captors who demand men to work on the railway.

Flanagan is a writer of images, and in all his books (and particularly in this one) he luxuriates in the visual and the visceral.  We can envisage the gnarled gums that the young Dorrigo sees above him as he lies back in a horse-drawn dray, jolting through the bush as he joins his older brother in a bush camp.  We see the golden dust-motes swirling in the still air of a first-floor bookshop when he first sees Amy; we hear the sigh of the waves outside the beachside pub that Amy manages with her husband.  We can see – and our imagination flinches away from –  the mud, pus and shit of the Burmese camp.  Parts of the book are disturbingly violent: so much so that I found myself unable to sleep after reading some sections of it.

The book is consciously literary, with small extracts of Japanese verse separating the different parts of the book. The Japanese guards are monsters: the Japanese guards are also cultured men.  It is this paradox that he explores in the latter part of the book, as the war ends and somehow these men- both Australian and Japanese- are somehow meant to rejoin life again.  Memory smooths and distorts; men on both sides grapple with questions of goodness and evil.

I mentioned that my praise is somewhat tempered in this book.  There are too many coincidences, and too much squeezed into the last quarter of the book. Flanagan himself in interviews said that he had started with the scenario of two people who had been lovers long ago catching sight of each other in a crowd, and I felt as if this scenario, which appears near the end of the book,  was a writing exercise in its own right.  So, too, the bushfire scenes near the end felt like a self-contained piece of descriptive writing, undertaken as a set piece and not particularly germane to the narrative. I found that the ending was messy- almost as if Flanagan wanted to tie everything up and yet couldn’t quite bring himself to bring the book to a close either.

That said, these are just qualms and not at all the demolition job that Michael Hofman unleashed in the London Review of Books.   No-  I was overwhelmed by the bigness of the book and its themes.  The love scenes were tender, physical, and finely crafted, and so too, paradoxically,  were the war scenes: both part of being human.  In interviews, Richard Flanagan seems to think of this as the book he’s been driven to write, all along throughout his writing career. I think he might be right.

4 responses to “‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Richard Flanagan

  1. I loved it too. I cannot understand why the Miles Franklin judges passed it over, unless they are so spooked by the gender wars that they dare not give the prize to a man until the record stands at 50/50.
    I think Flanagan is one of our finest writers ever.

  2. I read too many war books growing up, and with so many mates’ fathers returned servicemen it felt like the war was still current. Now I avoid them and in any case I dislike rewritten histories. Now I’ve read your review, and Hoffman’s, thankyou for that, I can leave this one off the TBR with clear conscience. Did like Goulds Book of Fish though.

  3. Some reviewers seem to think that The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a book about war. But, for me, it is a book about love. All the many different kinds of love. And the ways a lack of love can warp even the most heroic of lives. The parts set on the Thai-Burma railway ‘simply’ illustrate the fraternal love that each man feels for his comrades. The bushfire scene was, I agree, clumsy, but served to illustrate Dorrigo’s love for the idea of his family even though he never really loved his wife as a person. Even (spoiler alert) the Japanese guard, with his loving wife, in the end could find the contentment that continually eluded the loveless Dorrigo.

  4. I loved the way Flanagan wrote about the ‘real’ person who was the public war hero Dorrigo Evans. The highlight for me was his portrayal of the complex person who was the Japanese war commander. There was no simplistic portrayal of ‘evil’ Japanese by this son of a Japanese prisoner of war.

    Having said that I found the pages devoted to Dorrigo’s affair with Amy pedestrian. I though this section could have been easily halved. Does this make me heartless?

    I liked the messiness of the end. This reflects the lives people leave behind when they die. Very few people leave life with ends neatly tied up, with all things resolved.

    I agree with Michelle and I think Flanagan has said this himself – this is a book about love.

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