I have been curious to read this novel ever since hearing Richard Flanagan on Conversations with Richard Fidler. However, I admit to abandoning Flanagan’s earlier novel Gould’s Book of Fish as I found it just too much hard work. Despite this, I made sure I began Narrow Road with an open mind.
Dorrigo Evans is the surgeon in a Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma Railway. He tends to the men of the camp afflicted by tropical diseases, beatings and despair while also being haunted by an earlier love affair with his uncle’s wife. Dorrigo realises there are two types of men, those who have been on the Line and the rest of humanity. This novel is based on conversations Flanagan had with his father about his experiences as a slave labourer on the Thai-Burma railway.
First Impressions: This is definitely a novel of high quality literature and the prose really draws you in.
Highlights: If the aim of the novel was to slightly traumatize the reader, then Flanagan has succeeded. I have a good general knowledge of WW2 so it wasn’t that the description of the despair in the POW camp shocked me. I am sure that most people interested in reading this novel would be in a similar situation. The events at the camp were almost like a documentary reel while the deluge of feelings became overwhelming. So many feelings. Everyone’s feelings. The Line that Dorrigo refers to also applies to members of the Japanese army in the camps so we follow their stories after the war too and that proved to be compulsive reading. One thing I confess I did not really know too much about was the respect the Japanese army had for rank, regardless of what side the person in question was on.
If I was an editor: I wasn’t so absorbed by the chapters where Dorrigo’s lover and wife are the focus, nor did I think his references to classics and literature necessary but both of these elements were no doubt included to show the whole man Dorrigo was and the latter also provided a balance to the Japanese haikus included.
Overall: A worthy literary read that perhaps should have won the Miles Franklin.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North: 5 stars
Thank you to Random House (Vintage) for a copy of the ARC to review.