“August, 1943. In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma death railway, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his love affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier. Struggling to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from beatings, he receives a letter that will change his life forever.” The Narrow Road to the Deep North
I think I was about the 16th person to place this book on reserve at my library so I thought I wouldn’t get around to reading it until mid year. Thankfully, however, my fellow library patrons devoured this book with as much gusto as I did. From start to finish it immersed the reader in the world of the Aussie POW, revealing the duality of the legend that is the ANZAC legend.
Being a history teacher (and teaching the ANZAC legend, POW experience and war in the Pacific to my students) and having a massive interest in historical fiction, I was so excited about reading this book. Unfortunately I was having a bit of a stressy (yes, I know, not really a word) week when I read this book. You know the kind of week I mean….more suited to humorous memoirs or chic lit than literary fiction set in the war.
I think had I been in a different frame of mind, this would have been a five out of five experience. Listen, it wasn’t far off this, but there are times and places for particular books and I chose the wrong week to be inspired by the story.
Merieke Hardy on ABC’s Book Club said, “I read it a few weeks ago and I still can’t shake it….it’s a very profound and moving book.” I find this to be true for me too. I found that I was thinking about the book while I wasn’t reading it because I felt the characters were so beautifully written.
The central character, Dorrigo Evans, epitomises the dualistic soul. As a doctor he is responsible for the health and lives of the men that are in the camp with him and his character is tested as he has to make terrible choices in the camps, negotiating with the Japanese about their unrealistic demands on the men who are barely standing, struck down with cholera and other terrible diseases. Returning home, he is a a national hero, an ANZAC legend in the flesh, but deep within him there are two sides to his life. Alongside his heroism is a sense of loss about the many things that plague him, including the loss of men during the war and his perceived role in their death and suffering, and even more so, the loss of the woman he loved.
Love is ultimately the central theme in the book, despite it being about the terrible conditions of the POW camps. Dorrigo meets Amy.
Dorry, would it?
Would it, what?
Scare you, Amy said. If I said I love you?
I was rather thankful for the love story. It gave meaning to Dorrigo, who although a hero, was also I think someone I might not completely understand had he not had this relationship in the book. Despite being engaged to Ella, a woman who waits for him for the duration of the war and for the years after where he extends his duties, always escaping the reality of home, he falls hard for Amy. She is his uncle’s young wife and she has had her own past tragedy. It is a beautifully flawed love which drives him throughout his life. One that is placed in reality because although you want it to work out, you know it cannot be.
I loved how the author represented the Australian soldiers, many of whom had those “Aussie” characteristics that we as a nation love to claim as ANZAC. I loved the relationships between the men. The scenes where a POW walked beside his mate who could only crawl was beautiful.
“As they finally drew closer, he realised it was Tiny Middleton who was crawling, and that it was Darky Gardiner walking with him, as though this were the most natural thing in the world. Twice he saw Gardiner offer to support his companion, but Middleton seemed intent on making it there on his own….
……..this sight of that crippled man and his friend, who might mock him but would not desert him….”
There were also the dark moments amongst desperate men and the acceptance of their fate that was so real, it was extremely intense. Flanagan does not limit himself to portraying ANZACs as we know it in our country’s legend, but also those other moments of “humanness” which must occur during times of war and death. He does not stop short of describing the smells, the lack of taste in the food, the terrible thoughts that claim their minds, the sounds of rain and the dampness which must have never left their bodies, even after they returned home. He describes the way the men, returned from this experience, could not relate to their families in the same way. The way Dorrigo loves his children from a distance, the way he never quite gives himself over to his wife, Ella. The effect of war is never instantaneous, but lasts a lifetime, something that our generation never really understands fully.
Finally, most novels about war are written from the perspective of the victorious. Richard Flanagan refuses to limit the experience to that of the Australians. He follows the Japanese guards throughout the war and after and we gain insight into their own thoughts, their reasoning, and the Emperor’s decree that drives them to commit such terrible acts. It does not excuse but it does make an attempt to partly explain and that is a great feat.
Thinking about it now, although I was in the wrong frame of mind to love this book while I read it, I love it now just thinking about it. I think it is almost essential reading for any person wanting to know about a generation which may not be around for much longer, to understand and to respect. It is a exploration of the human spirit, both good and bad, of love, of evil, of legends. Read it!
This book is reviewed as part of the Eclectic Reader Challenge on Book’d Out (War/Military Fiction) 4/12 books reviewed.