By Richard FlanaganFiction Random House Australia
The Narrow Road to the Deep North
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the sixth novel from internationally acclaimed writer Richard Flanagan, has been rapturously received so far. Set between the Japanese slave labour camps of World War II and suburban Australia, it is the book Flanagan – son of a Thai–Burma railway POW survivor – has always wanted to write. He made several attempts at this story before he nailed his approach with this spectacular book; some of them were in poetry, an influence that lingers in his prose.
Writing in the Guardian, Romy Ash called it ‘a howl into the silence of returned serviceman’. In the Sydney Morning Herald, Morag Fraser praised it as ‘a huge novel, ambitious, driven, multi-stranded and unembarrassed by its documentary impulse’.
As one day in a Japanese slave labour camp builds to its horrific climax, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans – a character who has been compared to a darker Weary Dunlop – battles and fails in his quest to save the lives of his fellow POWs, a man is killed for no reason, and a love story unfolds. This is a book about the cruelty of war, the tenuousness of life and the impossibility of love. It also questions the complex nature of heroism.
Flanagan writes boldly and viscerally about the worst details of war, as well as the pleasure and pain of love, and the impossibility of properly acclimatising to safe suburbia again after enduring the privations of a POW camp.
Richard Flanagan’s novel is in equal parts poetic and brutal, juxtaposing the horrors of war with the ravages of love to examine the emotions that entwine the two. Slipping artfully through the layers of one man’s personal history, with a Japanese POW camp on the Thai–Burma railway at the heart of its narrative, it focuses on the life of surgeon Dorrigo Evans, a Weary Dunlop-type character, who finds it impossible to reconcile the reverence the Australian public bestows upon him with his shortcomings and failings. As a 77-year-old reflecting on his infidelities, he seems emotionally detached, almost callous, but underneath surges the great passion that has been clipped by his need to survive.
His inner turmoil over his pre-war affair with his uncle’s wife, Amy, and his pragmatic attachment to his wife, Ella, masks his deep dismay for his powerlessness in the camp. Flanagan’s gut-wrenching and intensely visceral camp scenes make this novel stand out, along with his examination of how people are capable of sadism – he imbues his Japanese characters with a complexity not often achieved in war fiction. The Narrow Road to The Deep North redefines heroism and poses the idea that love can be a type of hell, like war, but one that we can survive.
Kurt Cobain is said to have once declared that ‘pretending to be someone you’re not is a waste of the person you are’. A nugget of wisdom such as this doesn’t sit well with the fiction writer, especially one like Richard Flanagan, for he is a novelist who is able to pretend better than most others working today. It is his pretending, his ability to be not himself but instead a raft of others, invented and half-invented others, that gives his work its weight. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is no exception – Flanagan inhabits its characters, both the minor and major, to the extent that readers will need to constantly remind themselves that these people are not ‘real’, at least in a corporeal understanding.
Cobain’s quote also neatly sums up much of the book’s subject matter: it is full of people pretending to be someone else, or even just pretending to not be themselves. Via the magic of literary and lively writing we’re lucky enough to both see what they do and read their introspections.
Flanagan’s sixth novel largely revolves around the world of a doctor called Dorrigo Evans (partly based on Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop, one of the heroes of the prison camps) although as the book progresses, characters that seemed destined ancillary re-appear and their stories are fleshed out. We’re given many points of view – wives and girlfriends, mates and sons – including of those Japanese soldiers who held the Australian prisoners captive, who killed so many of them directly and indirectly. Drama undulates throughout the book as we travel across decades and continents; and down deep into the psyches of each character.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is about truth, and truths. Flanagan punches so assiduously at various truths and at the same time at some overall underlying and greater truth. The book takes its title from that of a work by the esteemed Japanese haiku poet Basho, and like all great titles it alludes to umpteen different things, pointing to and invoking much of the subject matter of the book, and many of its themes. But the title is also an instruction, as is the book too: a manual of sorts: one that gives direction, through the workings and musings of undeniably memorable characters, as to How One Might Live. Flanagan takes us around the world and back in time in the hope that he might also just perhaps be able show us the route that leads us down into ourselves, to be still, to couple so closely with another human being that masks and masquerading are useless.
The true heart and the heartfelt truth of this novel is its depiction of the suffering and death of the Australians condemned to build the impossible railway. The passages – some which go for many brutal pages – that lay out in detail exactly how life was in the POW camp, are examples of merciless writing, writing that gives no shadow or murk under which a reader can hide.
Kurt Cobain also once said that he’d ‘rather be hated for who I am, rather than loved for who I am not’. Flanagan’s wonderful novel tries to do away with hate, positioning it as a misunderstanding or as circumstantial – or even as not-yet-realised-love – but ultimately it is not love nor hate that governs this book, but an honesty that sits above or below or inside the muddiness of human emotions.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist