Stella Leventoyannis Harvey

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Summer grasses/All that remains/of soldiers’ dreams.” Matsuo Bashō

I just finished reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. 

What a book! Incredible! I’d like to tell you more about why I liked it and how it impacted me, but I don’t know where to begin. I’m still heart and soul into it as if I’ve been hit by something massive and I’m disoriented, unsure what happened.

The title of the novel is derived from Matsuo Bashō’s poem of his travels to Japan’s remote north-eastern region, Tohoku. Bits of poetry are quoted throughout the novel, beautifully strengthening the character development and the scenes where they appear as well as foreshadowing each section of the book.

I can tell you that Flanagan wrote the book for his father, who was a prisoner of war during WWII. The book follows the lives of the Australian prisoners of war and their Japanese captors, both tasked with completing the Burma railway line.

But in telling you this, I’m stalling, still trying to find my way to what I want to say.

I’m still thinking about the main protagonists, in fact all the characters. This, I think speaks to the strength of this novel.

Dorrigo Evans, an Australian surgeon has clawed his way out of poverty. Throughout the book, we get snippets of his life, particularly his experience as the highest ranking officer in a Japanese POW camp during WWII, building the Line. Tenji Nakamura is the Japanese commanding officer. It is his duty to build the railway the English and the Americans thought was impossible to complete. And there are other characters, not a minor one in the bunch: Amy, Dorrigo’s love interest and his uncle’s wife; Ella, Dorrigo’s wife; and all the young soldiers: Australians, Rooster MacNeice, Darky Gardiner, Sheephead Morton, Bonox Baker, Lizard Brancusi, Chum Fahey, and Korean, Choi Sang Min.

Their lives, their stories left me wounded. And yes, I’m still bleeding. Maybe that is why I’m at a loss for words.

The novel lays bare a piece of history I knew nothing about. The factual unadorned descriptions of the conditions of the camps and what men endured−from cholera to drug addiction−was difficult to read and yet, I was compelled to read on as though bearing witness to this incredible suffering gave some purpose to it. And yet, what purpose could there be for such cruelty?

And yes, the novel also has a love story and friendships that bind the survivors long after the war is over. No one seems to understand these men as well as the mates who shared the same experience.

I liked the rich, densely packed language and I loved the fact that Flanagan told this story from the perspective of the captives and the captors, both of whom were prisoners of the Line.

Yet, all these things are only part of what I admired about this novel. I think, when pushed, I’d have to say my favourite piece was how Flanagan got to the heart of what it means to be good. And what a difficult thing it is to be good.

“The men called Dorrigo Evans Colonel to his face and the Big Fella everywhere else. There were moments when the Big Fella felt far too small for all that they now wanted him to bear. There was Dorrigo Evans and there was this other man with whom he shared looks, habits and ways of speech. But the big Fella was noble where Dorrigo was not, self-sacrificing where Dorrigo was selfish.”

This ultimately is the struggle we all have: to be what others believe we are.

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