A novel of the cruelty of war, and tenuousness of life and the impossibility of love.
Richard Flanagan’s story — of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor haunted by a love affair with his uncle’s wife — journeys from the caves of Tasmanian trappers in the early twentieth century to a crumbling pre-war beachside hotel, from a Thai jungle prison to a Japanese snow festival, from the Changi gallows to a chance meeting of lovers on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Taking its title from 17th-century haiku poet Basho’s travel journal, The Narrow Road To The Deep North is about the impossibility of love. At its heart is one day in a Japanese slave labour camp in August 1943. As the day builds to its horrific climax, Dorrigo Evans 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.
~Synopsis from goodreads
Hooboy! This book was one hell of an emotional roller-coaster.
Of course, I knew going in that it was a World War 2 novel, and that it was a Man Booker 2014 award winner, a combination that equals a harrowing reading experience. So, I went into the book with all my expectations set.
But in spite of the heads-up, I found myself struggling with portions of the book, and surprisingly those were not related to the war at all.
The beginning. The book starts with the main protagonist Dorrigo Evans’ childhood and his pre-war years when he has a love affair with his uncle’s young wife. I suppose the reason for this love affair was to give us a better understanding of Dorrigo, his character and motivations, and maybe add some pathos to the story.
Why this plot point just did not resonate with me.
- First, it’s an extramarital affair so for me to sympathize with the lovers, the love story has to be extraordinary, which it’s not. It’s banal in the extreme.
- Second, the object of his affections, the love of his life who will haunt him till the end of his days, she is so trite, so unappealing, so boring that I just skimmed through this entire affair, and ended up having no interest whatever in how this love story fared.
Thankfully, once the war starts, and Dorrigo and company are prisoners of war, the book starts to live up to the acclaim that it has received by critics and bloggers so far.
These sections of the book are pretty graphic, harrowing, and morally troubling, but they are also the most moving and best-written sections of the book.
Flanagan has written this book in honor of his father who was a POW in a Japanese camp during World War 2, and I can guess that a lot of the descriptions and situations in these sections of the book come directly from the man who actually experienced it. Flanagan presents his reasons for writing this book indirectly in a very beautiful way:
We remember nothing. Maybe for a year or two. Maybe most of a life, if we live. Maybe. But then we will die, and who will ever understand any of this? And maybe we remember nothing most of all when we put our hands on our hearts and carry on about not forgetting.
Maybe this book is a recount of the incidents to make sure that people do not forget it ever happened?
And maybe that’s why I loved this part of the book so much. The prose in this section just reads so honest and truthful and sincere, and from the heart.
I loved the post-war sections also which document how the survivors all dealt with their past in so many different ways – some chose to forget, some chose to overlook their cruelties, and some choose to pretend that life is just the same, and that the war was just an aberration, while all the time, it’s actually the other way round.
On the whole, I love this book, but recommend it only for the patient. It’s a chunkster and the first 100 odd pages were pretty rough going for me. In addition, I recommend it for people with a strong stomach who can stand the violence and gruesomeness that is the war portions.
It’s most definitely not a book for everyone, but if you like literary reads in general, and you have the time for it, I think you will be well-rewarded.
You can also purchase a copy of this book from Amazon