Winner of The Man Booker Prize 2014, this extraordinary novel on the surface is about Dorrigo Evans, an army surgeon who finds himself in command of several hundred fellow POWs forced into hard labour to build the notorious Burma Railway between Bangkok and Rangoon in WWII. Flanagan’s approach to telling the Story of Dorrigo turns the novel into much much more than just a run of the mill WWII saga. We see vignettes not only from Dorrigo’s life before, after, and during the Second World War but also snippets from those around him- Amy, the great love he leaves to go to war, his fellow POWs, the Japanese Army officers who oversee Dorrigo’s section of ‘The Line’. It is, as the marketing hype suggests, “a story about the many forms of love and death, of war and truth, as one man comes of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost.”
One of the best things about this book is that although it is fiction, it is based within a history that is vehemently real. Knowing that, although these specific events didn’t take place, the bravery, strength, cowardice and evil depicted really happened adds an extra dimension to the tale.
Getting inside the heads of the Japanese and Korean soldiers blurred the lines between what I believed to be the established truths behind this history and ripped apart my black and white approach to this era. Shades of grey fill the page with humanity and the unfairness of history.
This is Richard Flanagan’s tribute to his father who was an Australian POW on the notorious Burma Railway. Richard’s father was on the railway with the famous Weary Dunlop who, in the words of one of his men, became “a lighthouse of sanity in a universe of madness and suffering”. When asked if Dorrigo is inspired by Weary, Flanagan emphatically responds that “Dunlop is too extraordinary a character for fiction.” For such an extraordinary book with such extraordinary characters, that says so much.
Flanagan’s style of writing, particularly some of his grammatical choices, and his approach to chronology take some getting used to but you are quickly swept up into the rich fabric that Flanagan weaves with his descriptive writing.
I must have written and rewritten this review two dozen times over the past month or so. To try and get my thoughts and feelings about this book down on ‘paper’ feels at the moment like my own personal Everest. I simply do not have sufficient words to describe the impact this book had on me.
In despair, and with my deadline looming, I looked back on the conversation I had with my fellow Book Eaters ten minutes after finishing and decided to share with you my initial thoughts.
“I’ve just finished The Narrow Road To The Deep North.
It’s taken 8 months. I’ve had to put it down and leave it alone so many times and stop myself from picking it back up until I’m able to deal with the emotions it brings. I’ve read the last 75 pages with tears streaming down my face. It’s a book that has punched me in the gut over and over. I don’t know if I’ll ever be strong enough to read it again and yet I don’t know how I can bear the thought of never again opening the pages of a book that has truly changed the way I think in a fundamental way.
I truly don’t know if I recommend it. In almost every way I do, but it is a book which is fiction and yet not fiction. The truths in the story have shred my heart into tiny pieces.“
5 bites. If only there were more bites to give…