A harrowing book about war, love, and the nature of good and evil. Set, for the most part, around the end of the Second World War, it is about a group of Australian soldiers taken prisoner by the Japanese and made to build a railway in the jungles of Burma. And about the love the main character, Dorrigo Evans, has for his uncle’s wife, Amy—a love that haunts him for the rest of his life.
The book starts with Dorrigo as a renowned surgeon and a war hero, who doesn’t feel that he deserves the accolades being heaped on him. The first section moves between Dorrigo as an old man, his time in the POW camp as a doctor, and when he meets Amy just before he goes off to war. This part of the book was the hardest to get through. Just as I was settling into one part of the story, the book took me somewhere else. But once Flanagan got to Dorrigo’s affair with Amy, I couldn’t put it down.
The second part of the book is set in the POW camp. The camp is described in such graphic detail that I could almost smell and feel it: the disease, the lack of food and medicine, and men who could barely walk being forced to work on the railway (which was called, with good reason, the Burma Death Railway). We get the point of view not only of the soldiers, but also the Korean camp guard, Goanna, and the camp commandant, Nakamura, who is trying to prove himself to his superior officer, Kota, and believes completely in the infallibility of the Japanese Emperor.
The postwar section follows the POWs—those who survived, including Dorrigo—and Nakamura, Kota and Goanna. Flanagan writes with great empathy for the POWs who come back changed to an seemingly unchanged society and are expected to get on with normal life. Post-war Japan, however, is another story. Nakamura manages to survive in the post-apocalyptic country by his wits, eventually becoming a good man who wouldn’t—literally—hurt a fly. Which is the real Nakamura? Or do we all have this capacity for generosity and cruelty within ourselves?
This book resonated with me in a very personal sense. My uncle fought in the Second World War and was taken prisoner by the Japanese in Singapore. He never talked about what happened, but he was very much on my mind when I was reading this book.
The Narrow Road to Deep North is beautifully written—there are passages that I went back to after finishing the book. Flanagan writes with so much insight about human nature and how people cope (or don’t) with unbelievably horrific events. I liked the fact that we get both sides of the story, which could not have been easy, considering the book is based on the experience of Flanagan’s father, who worked on the railway. It is pretty grim—you need to have a strong stomach for the section in the camps—but there is a lot of beauty. Each section begins with a haiku, most of them by Issa. And through all the war and cruelty and destruction, the centre of this book is the love story.