Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Review: THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH, by Richard Flanagan

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan. Published 2014 by Knopf. Literary Fiction.

This year's Man Booker Prize winner is a tough, tough read, but a very rewarding one. Australian novelist Richard Flanagan tells the fictional story of Dorrigo Evans, a doctor and survivor of the Japanese POW camp that built the Burma Railway between Bangkok and Rangoon in 1943. The railway was built using forced and slave labor; thousands of people died constructing it under unimaginable conditions. The novel documents the experiences of Dorrigo, several ordinary soldiers on the line including Darky Gardiner, a young man who tries to find the good in every day even when circumstances are at their bleakest.

And there always seems to be a new low. Flanagan gives us excruciating detail on the privations and suffering the men endured- the starvation, the long long miles of walking, the arduous work done without proper tools, the ever-increasing demands of the soldiers directing the work, and the brutal beatings and humiliations inflicted by the guards. He also gives his characters startling humanity, including the guards and taskmasters who regard suffering as a matter of course and the POWs as less than human, because they are prisoners, alive and not dead.

The cruelties of the Burma Railway have been documented in other books and films- The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Pierre Boulle's 1952 novel that became the David Lean film being the most famous example- but what Narrow Road brings to mind for me is the more recent nonfiction Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand's recounting of the Louis Zamperini story, particularly his time as a POW in Japan. Zamperini was not involved in the Burma Railway but Flanagan's story echoes some of the the same themes and particulars, especially the POWs' living conditions. Hillenbrand's book also explains in historical terms why the United States ceased prosecuting Japanese war criminals, which I found very helpful in understanding those parts of Flanagan's book in which the story moves to the guards' post-war experiences.

Because Flanagan does try to tell the story of the railway from their perspective too, a choice I think is brave and challenging. Those passages were also hard to read, the rationalizing of torture and cruelty, and Flanagan, without justifying anything, I think is trying to talk about how someone can be capable of violence, and comfortable with it. I think he's trying to talk about how a culture of violence perpetuates itself, showing the whole life cycle of it, from earliest humiliation to its effects far downstream, on people on whom a hand was never laid.

In this book, those people are the women in Dorrigo's life, particularly his wife Ella and his many mistresses. Dorrigo marries Ella out of social expectation; he's deeply in love with his estranged uncle's young wife Amy, whom he believes has died while he was at war. He spends the rest of his life trying to bury his grief and his post-war trauma in affairs and in his public life. In his post-war life he becomes a kind of spokesman for the POWs on the railway and becomes a very well-known public figure. At some point, he has to reconcile all these parts of himself, find a way to move forward.

There is a beautiful, terrible poetry to The Narrow Road and I found the book very hard to put down. I would read short passages at a time, take breaks, come back, read more, come back. It's disturbing, sometimes terrifying, sometimes bleak and almost impossibly sad, and yet I didn't want it to end. Flanagan has written a wonderful and difficult book that I would recommend to just about anyone, a classic deserving of the recognition it's received.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.