Richard Flanagan opens The Narrow Road to the Deep North with a series of literary snapshots that serve as a virtual executive summary of what is to come.
First we have a quick picture of Dorrigo Evans in the kitchen of his Tasmanian home in the 1920s. The five-year-old has dropped a rock on his thumb, creating a blood blister under the nail. While his mother pierces the nail to relieve the pressure, a visiting Jackie Maguire laments the disappearance of his wife the week before. The young Dorrigo remembers seeing his much older brother Tom with Mrs. Maguire the week before she vanished: “…his brother with his hand reaching up inside her skirt, as she — a small, intense woman of exotic darkness — leaned up against the shed behind the coaching house.”
Next, we meet Dorrigo eighteen years later, lying in bed with Amy in a third floor room of a run-down hotel in Adelaide — by this time, he is studying medicine at the University of Melbourne. The two have an idle lovers’ conversation that turns suddenly serious: “Will you leave Ella?…Will you leave Keith?” The conversation ends abruptly when Dorrigo tells Amy he is shipping out to the war the next Wednesday.
And finally we meet Dorrigo Evans, now 77, again in a hotel bed, this time with 52-year-old Lynette Maison, the wife of a close colleague:
Inexplicably to him, he had in recent years become a war hero, a famous and celebrated surgeon, the public image of a time and a tragedy, the subject of biographies, plays and documentaries. The object of veneration, hagiographies, adulation. He understood that he shared certain features, habits and history with the war hero. But he was not him. He’d just had more success at living than at dying, and there were no longer so many left to carry the mantle for the POWs. To deny the reverence seemed to insult the memory of those who had died. He couldn’t do that. And besides, he no longer had the energy.
Whatever they called him — hero, coward, fraud — all of it now seemed to have less and less to do with him. It belonged to a world that was ever more vaporous to him. He understood he was admired by the nation, if despaired of by those who had to work with him as an ageing surgeon, and mildly disdained and possibly envied by the many other doctors who had done similar things in other POW camps but who sensed, unhappily, that there was something in his character that was not in theirs which had elevated him far above them in the nation’s affection.
That memory arises because the Dorrigo has just finished writing the foreword for a book of illustrations that were done by a fellow POW in the camps and it has brought on a flood: “For good reason, the POWs refer to the slow descent into madness that followed simply with two words: the Line.” Flanagan concludes this extended overview of his story with some memories of incidents of brutality that were a daily feature of life on the Line.
The first is the story of Dorrigo and Amy. He is doing his final training as an army medic in late 1940 when he receives a telegram from elder brother Tom urging him to visit their uncle Keith who runs a pub in Adelaide. Tasmanian Dorrigo knows almost no one in Australia, so he decides to make the trip. Shortly before, however, he has an enigmatic and entrancing encounter with a beautiful young woman at a book launch in Melbourne. Dorrigo is engaged to Emma in what is best described as a “contract of convenience” — his response to meeting this girl underlines the fragility of that engagement.
That woman is Amy — and it turns out she is the youthful second wife of Uncle Keith. Dorrigo does visit the pub/hotel and the two begin a passionate affair that means Dorrigo spends all his free time in Adelaide. This youthful life experience — and this section of the book — comes to an end with two near simultaneous events: Dorrigo’s shipping out to war and an explosion and fire that destroy the pub, taking four lives in the process.
Section two of the book is the longest and by far the most intense. The combat portion of Dorrigo’s war does not last long and we next find him in a POW camp. While the Brits had contemplated building a railway linking Siam and Burma (one version of the “narrow road to the deep north” of the title — Basho’s poetic travelogue would be another), they abandoned the idea as an impossibility. The Japanese, eager to invade India, have declared it a necessity and further that it must be completed in 18 months. It will be built by POWs and forced labor from Asian countries the Japanese have conquered.
All of this section takes place in the POW camp and be forewarned it is truly brutal. Dorrigo is the senior Australian officer in the camp and the Japanese masters respect hierarchy. Daily, it falls to him to determine which prisoners will be sent off to build the Line and who will remain in camp in the tents of the dying and near-dying — once he has “assigned” the work force (the Japanese decree just how many hundred that will be each day), Dorrigo spends the rest of his day trying to keep the near-dying as alive as he can.
I won’t go into detail, but this is definitely the best-realized portion of the book — I’d love to offer an excerpt, but I am afraid each incident goes on for pages and a paragraph or two would be an inadequate illustration. Flanagan develops three-dimensional characters of both prisoners and their keepers. A wide assortment of atrocities and brutalities are described in excruciating, painful detail. Certainly, there are examples of what would qualify as “heroism”, but mainly it is a picture of living hell.
And finally, there is the post-war section of the book. Dorrigo is not the only prisoner survivor — we also return to the stories of others who are every bit as emotionally damaged as he is. And Flanagan also follows the stories of some of the Japanese prison minders who managed to escape post-war prosecution, mainly because the Allied winners just didn’t have the time to get to them all. It brings us up to date with the Dorrigo Evans we met in the opening sketch that summarized the book.
As much as I admire the ambition and much of the execution of the novel, I have to admit that I have some disappointment with the overall result — basically, the POW section is so powerful that it makes the other two seem woefully weak in comparison. Dorrigo’s affair with Amy is a satisfactory presentation of youthful infatuation (and sexual attraction) when you read it — it seems empty once Flanagan gets to the prison camp.
The final section suffers from the same flaw. We know from that opening part that Dorrigo has become an Australian success as a surgeon, not to mention war hero — but that 50 year portion of his life is left curiously under-developed in the novel. Certainly the war has left him severely emotionally damaged but he seems to have recovered well enough to manage a string of recognized accomplishments — Flanagan just does not create the tension that shows how he managed to do both. Alas, the Japanese tormenters who were three-dimensional in the prison camp also become two-dimensional in this part of the novel.
I do realize that at least part of this was deliberate on the author’s part: war damages the psyche of all who are involved, be they temporary “winners” or the final ones, and all combatants live damaged lives from then on. But I can’t help but wonder if Flanagan was as emotionally exhausted in the writing following the powerful portrayal of the POW camp as I was in the reading. I was more than ready to discover how Dorrigo had become a nationally recognized, if personally conflicted, success — and that just didn’t happen. When I started that final section, I was quite prepared for The Narrow Road to the Deep North to emerge as a truly stunning novel; instead it slipped to being just a quite good one.