This is my review of The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.
Exhausted, sick, and starving Aussie servicemen forced to watch the brutal beating of a colleague in a Japanese wartime prison camp distanced themselves from the horror by focusing on their next inadequate meal, or the feast they might one day enjoy again back home. In the same way, the reader often has to switch off from Flanagan's unrelenting portrayal of the cruelty and squalor of life for those slaving on the Burma railway. Since the author's own father was one of the slave labourers, the book must be based on first person anecdotes, although the violence sometimes seems overdone, as when a man already at death's door is flogged for what seems like hours but somehow survives.
The story revolves around Dorrigo Evans, the only member of his family to win a scholarship and become an eminent if controversial surgeon, most revered for his leadership of men held prisoner by the Japanese. Crises seem to bring out the hero in Dorrigo. Otherwise, beneath his veneer of confidence and charm, he is a shell of a man, promiscuous and nihilistic, haunted by the horrors of the war and the loss of the only woman he believes himself to have loved.
With continual switches back and forth in time and between points of view, the book often seems rambling and disjointed, although this may serve Flanagan's intention to show the nature of memory, and the influence of the past on the future. He moulds words to convey complex thoughts:
"…the world organises its affairs so that civilisation every day commits crimes for which any individual would be imprisoned for life….. people accept this either by ignoring it and calling it current affairs or politics or wars, or by making a space that has nothing to do with civilisation and calling that space their private world…. And the more that private life becomes a secret life, the freer they feel. But it is not so. You are never free of the world; to share life is to share guilt."
Flanagan creates vivid images of "writhing peppermint gums and silver wattle that waved and danced" in the Tasmanian heat, or "monsoonal rain flogging the long A-framed shelter – bamboo and open-walled" in the Burmese jungle. He often focuses on a single incident, leaving major events to the imagination. There are subtly moving scenes as when Dorrigo travels through the snow to a remote farmhouse to comfort the widow of one of his colleagues. Another, is when three camp survivors of the camps embark on a well-intentioned drunken escapade to fulfil the dream of a dead colleague, with an unexpected positive outcome.
The author extends the perhaps overworked theme of the wartime camps by exploring "life afterwards" for both the Australians and the Japanese, although the latter sometimes seem stereotyped and two-dimensional, despite the inclusion of some beautiful if ironic haiku. Scenes of intense brutality are shot through with threads of sentimentality. There are a few too many contrived coincidences towards the end when Flanagan is tying up loose strands in a belated stab at plot. Perhaps he tells us too much what to think of characters like Dorrigo and his love "Amy-ami-amour". These are flaws in the often brilliant flow of an author celebrated in Australia, now gaining recognition in the UK, but it gives plenty of meat for discussion if you have the stomach for it.