So. The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the Man Booker Prize in 2014. After finishing it I understand why. It’s a big novel, but it is also a small one. It has a cast of thousands (not really), but Flanagan develops the major ones quite well. It’s a war novel, but also a tragic love story. It has descriptions of wartime injuries and third world diseases that made my stomach churn, and also images of surpassing beauty. It is plot and character driven, but also contains moments of that “beautiful nonsense” that we both love and hate around here. Oh, and it’s also avant garde because Flanagan doesn’t believe in quotation marks. Brief aside, why, oh why do some authors find it to be a good idea to ditch quotation marks? Do they cause autism or something, like vaccines? It’s just mean to your readers. The upshot of this book and how it can be everything to everyone is that I’m having a very hard time figuring out a way to approach writing about it. In the interest of actually getting something posted today, I think I’m going to have to keep things brief, lest I get completely side tracked and end up writing a term paper about it. I actually think I could do that about this book. But no one wants to read that. And I surely don’t want to take the time to write it.
The novel jumps around in time a bit, but for the most part moves forward steadily, focusing on a single day in a Japanese POW camp during monsoon season in 1943. The POW’s that Flanagan focuses on are a group of Australians tasked with building the Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway because so many people died in the building of it. The Australians are dropping like flies on this day, and our “hero” Dorrigo Evans is their commanding officer, their doctor, and their executioner. He has to be the one to determine who is “well” enough to go onto the line and work, when “well” is a very loose term. Truly, I do not know that I have ever been as disturbed by anything I’ve read as I was by the time I spent with these men in the heart of World War II. I wanted to cry. I wanted to stop reading. I couldn’t do either. I just had to keep going, though sometimes it took me longer than I thought it would.
The love story aspect is prior to Dorrigo leaving for war. He falls in love with his uncle’s much younger wife, Amy, and they have an affair, which ends when he ships out. They never have a chance to say goodbye to each other because his departure is so sudden, and then, well, Dorrigo is taken prisoner, and his uncle tells Amy that he is dead, and then the hotel that they own explodes, and Dorrigo’s sort-of fiancée sends him a letter (which by some miracle actually gets to him in the POW camp on the other side of the world) saying that Amy is dead, even though maybe she isn’t. And years go by, and Dorrigo gets home eventually and marries Ella, the girl who told him that Amy was dead, and he spends the bulk of their marriage committing adultery and generally being a terrible husband.
In the POW camp, we are introduced to many Australians with names like Tiny and Rooster and Darky, and their captors, the Goanna, Corporal Fukuhara, Major Nakamura, and Colonel Kota. Flanagan has the reader spend time in the heads of the Japanese as well as the Australians, and it fascinated me how different the world views of the Japanese are. The horrible treatment they dish out to the POW’s isn’t any worse than anything that happened to them in military training (with the exception of the cholera and beri beri and the ulcers and the constant rain). The Japanese feel that any soldier who would allow himself to be captured is a coward and without honor—they would sooner die for their country than be prisoners of war. It’s such a foreign concept to me. I would much rather live than die, as would most Westerners I know. Having a bit of the novel told from the perspectives of these “bad guys” made for a more well-rounded story; I didn’t agree with what they did, but I understood why they did it.
I have so many half-formed thoughts about this book, and things I want to say, and passages I wish I had marked and now I can’t find. With the exception of the constant annoyance of the lack of quotation marks, I really enjoyed the process of reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I love that it was big and sprawling but also small and personal, and that Flanagan created characters I cared about but who were deeply, deeply flawed. I definitely recommend this book, though the graphic POW camp scenes are not for the weak of stomach/faint of heart. Also, this is not a book with a happy ending, though it may be one of the most satisfying sad endings I’ve ever read.
Also, I am going to go ahead and take a break from seriousness for a little bit. My next book is going to be Jen Lancaster’s most recent memoir, The Tao of Martha, in which our Jen spends all of 2012 trying to live the Martha Stewart way. I’m about fifty pages in and so far I’m really enjoying it. Jen Lancaster is hilarious, and just what the doctor ordered.