Boy do I hate to badmouth Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to The Deep North. I respect the Man Booker prize above all other literary awards, but I think they misfired with this one. Flanagan has given us a superbly realized setting full of terrific characters with great names–how can you beat Dorrigo Evans for a protagonist? Or the technique of referring to him almost always by both names? Or investing this profoundly successful surgeon with a massive inferiority complex and womanizing behavior that borders on the deviant-obsessive? Or the well-muscled prose that is so often a perfect match for the serious action?
Dorrigo is a reluctant warrior as WWII opens, and he eventually finds himself a Japanese prisoner engaged in building that famous Burma-Thai railway that Alec Guiness and his crew made so famous. Except the prim British were in the Beverly Hilton compared to Dorrigo’s men. There’s a reconstruction of one of the bamboo “dorms” right near the real site of that Kwai bridge site, and it brought me near to tears to see the conditions and photos even on a 20th century spring day with a nice restaurant awaiting.
Flanagan takes us through days and weeks and months of the mud, brutality, starvation, and resultant emaciation for which the Japanese are hated throughout Thailand and China to this day. Despite his other character problems, Dorrigo becomes a leader among his ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Corps) troops. Providing them not only medical care but leadership and a buffer between them and the Japanese officers. All of this despite having left behind the love of his life, for whom he pines the while.
Of course, his relationship with that left-behind lover is a betrayal.. She was his trusting uncle’s wife, and he never discusses her with his fiancee before he ships out.
So what’s not to like? About the setup, nothing at all. About the execution Plenty. There’s only so much you can read about the horrors of the daily mud and back-breaking loads required of these prisoners, about the beatings and the starvation and the parasites and the dysentery before your eyes glaze and you can’t feel the pain any longer. There’s only so many characters who “don’t understand” themselves (isn’t it the novelist’s job to help us understand them?) or so many times you can read that life has no meaning “it just is” before you suspect that the writer is short of thought, or technique, or insight, or something.
In short, as admirable as so much of Narrow Road is, the whole is much less than the sum of its repetitious parts. And I’m sorry for that. It’s a splendid effort that, I think, needed a better editor.