Book Review: ‘Narrow Road’ destined to be a classic war novel
“Narrow Road to the Deep North”
By Richard Flanagan
Gracefully told and with fluidity more akin to a symphony than a piece of historical fiction, the 2014 Man Booker Prize winner “Narrow Road to the Deep North” is the story of a group of Australian POWs forced to work on the notorious Burma Railway. The summary could end there, but that would be an affront to everything that Flanagan has so delicately poured into this novel.
The book’s central protagonist is Dorrigo Evans, a troubled Australian surgeon who is the senior officer of a division of POWs working on “the Line.” At the camp, Dorrigo works tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of his comrades, often picking which of the sick have to work the inhumane conditions on the railway that day.
In addition to 18-hour shifts, the men constantly face the brunt of beatings, tropical diseases and inescapable starvation. Truly, this is hell on Earth.
Then something interesting happens. Instead of taking his story down the conventional path of another brutal war novel, Flanagan deftly moves through time and space and enters the minds of other, more unexpected characters.
Enter Major Tenji Nakamura, the ruthless Japanese officer-in-charge at the camp, and possibly the most intriguing figure here. We enter his psyche objectively, viewing through his eyes the complexities of honor and war. There’s no judgment. No antagonizing. We see Nakamura as what he is: a man trying to do what he thinks to be a grand service to his empire.
This is a challenging way to approach a novel (especially considering Flanagan’s father was one of the men condemned to the real-life railway), but Flanagan moves with a masterful touch, painting the men and women of this book with the dispassionate brushstrokes of life.
Here, it becomes clear that Flanagan did not set out to write a war novel or a prison drama, but instead to compose a poetic collection of vignettes, written with the intention of capturing what it means to be alive, to love and to believe in something, and ultimately, to die.
Are you still there? Don’t get me wrong, despite the depth and sprawling subject matter, “Narrow Road” is not a daunting read. It lacks the weight of classics like “Naked and the Dead” or “Matterhorn.” At around 350 pages, this novel still could be considered a quick read.
In addition to this, Flanagan’s prose is smoother than a river stone, washing over you like a wave and disappearing before you know it. This is a special thing, and a huge achievement.
Even with many sections of the novel taking place before and after the events at the camp, “Narrow Road to the Deep North” is destined to join the echelon of classic war novels, and it deserves to be there.
But in truth, this novel is something more. This is something delicate and beautiful and deeply moving. This is the kind of work that gets inside of you and takes root, hopefully to stay.
Logan Farmer is a bookseller at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore in downtown Steamboat Springs.
This book are available at the Bud Werner Memorial Library and at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore; e-books can be found at http://www.steamboatbooks.com.
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