Often hailed as one of the finest Australian writers of our generation, Richard Flanagan is not new to writing about war time atrocities. In Gould’s Book of Fish Flanagan explored and invented unimaginable human brutality, delivering a book dividing opinions as complex as the novel itself. In his latest, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, winner of the Man Booker Prize 2014, he gives his take on one of the most horrific episodes of human depravity ever recorded: the engineering of the Burmese Death Railway.
The book chronicles the life of Tasmanian Dorrigo Evans, a survivor of the Imperial Japanese Prisoner-of-War camp based in Burma that oversaw the construction of the Death Railway at the end of the Second World War. It is here where innumerable prisoners lost their lives to the inhumane working conditions and relentless scourge of cholera, beri beri and malaria.
The novel’s narrative switches between Evan’s present day battle with the war-hero lifestyle, and his horrific experiences from the camp over fifty years ago. Woven together with a first-hand account from Flanagan’s own father, a survivor himself, he paints a human portrait celebrating the life of not only a war hero, but also an acclaimed surgeon, a public face to the POW trials, a broken man haunted by his past, and one hating his present.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a turbulent read, with Flangan’s mastery of the narration evident with his moving perspectives. The pace slows for the lingering recounts of harrowing experiences with war ploughing faster through the guilt-tinged and reckless practices of Evans’ later life. The delivery is beautifully crafted with ever-changing timelines. At the heart of the novel is a veracious plunge into the human brutality that exploited the prisoners and slaves. It is a painful reminder of a historical episode that happened only seventy years ago – a fact that Flanagan keeps us constantly aware of in bringing blood to the pages.
The story moves from a man hating his own adulation and carelessly exploiting his heroics, to one aching from the loss of a long lost love. It depicts a colourful blend of characters from the brutal Japanese generals to Australian prisoners of war celebrating camaraderie through the hardships and beatings.
Flanagan has given us a masterpiece about a man pushing himself in the face of death. It is a tale of love and loss to be celebrated amongst the classics of our time.