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The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Posted on Sep 5, 2014

Image by Knopf

By Ron Charles

To see long excerpts from “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” at Google Books, click here.

“The Narrow Road to the Deep North”
A book by Richard Flanagan

Beware Richard Flanagan’s new novel, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.” His story about a group of Australian POWs during World War II will cast a shadow over your summer and draw you away from friends and family into dark contemplation the way only the most extraordinary books can. Nothing since Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” has shaken me like this—all the more so because it’s based on recorded history, rather than apocalyptic speculation.

A finalist for this year’s Man Booker Prize, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” portrays a singular episode of manic brutality: imperial Japan’s construction of the Thailand-Burma Death Railway in the early 1940s. The British had long investigated this route, but they deemed the jungle impenetrable. Once the Japanese captured Burma, though, its army needed a more efficient resupply route, and so the impossible became possible in just over a year by using some 300,000 people as disposable labor. Flanagan’s late father was a survivor of that atrocity, which took the lives of more than 12,000 Allied prisoners.

“I had known for a long time that this was the book I had to write if I was to keep on writing,” Flanagan said recently. “Other novels came and went as I continued to fail to write this one.” Those “other novels” that he refers to so modestly include his 2001 masterpiece, “Gould’s Book of Fish,” which also dealt with the unfathomable abuse of prisoners. But the horrors of that story about a 19th-century convict kept in a partially submerged cage in Tasmania were leavened by ribald humor and a style so lush that the sentences seemed to send tendrils off the pages, which were printed in several different colors. “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” sports none of that dazzling showmanship. Its magic is darker and more subtle, its impact more devastating. Here, Flanagan is writing about events that outstrip surrealism. His quiet, unrelenting style is often unbearably powerful. Not just an enlivened historical documentary or a corrective to Pierre Boulle’s “The Bridge over the River Kwai,” this is a classic work of war fiction from a world-class writer.

The story casts its roving eye on 77-year-old Dr. Dorrigo Evans, a celebrated war hero whose life has been an unsatisfying string of sterile affairs and public honors. He loved a woman once, but tragedy intervened, and since then each new award and commendation only makes Dorrigo feel undeserving and fraudulent. “The more he was accused of virtue as he grew older, the more he hated it,” Flanagan writes. “Virtue was vanity dressed up and waiting for applause.” Asked to write the introduction to a collection of once-contraband sketches by one of the servicemen imprisoned with him in Siam, he begins to recall the experiences of that hellacious period.

Flanagan has always bent time to his art in the most captivating ways. His first novel, “Death of a River Guide,” played out the history of Tasmania in the few minutes it takes a man to drown. “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” has a more complex, impressionistic structure as it moves fluidly forward and backward, changing perspectives and locales, keeping us mesmerized but never confused. For many pages, the novel shimmers over the decades of Dorrigo’s life, only flashing on the horrors of war and the ghosts who haunt him.

But soon enough, that unspeakable period comes into focus in a series of blistering episodes you will never get out of your mind. As more senior captured officers succumb to disease, Dorrigo finds himself placed in command of 700 sickly prisoners who he “held, nursed, cajoled, begged, hoodwinked and organised into surviving, whose needs he always put before his own.” (This character bears some resemblance to the Australian war hero Col. Edward “Weary” Dunlop.) The hospital tent, equipped only with rags and saws, is a theater of magical thinking and unfathomable gore. During one operation scene, I confess that I forced my eyes down the page in a blur.

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