I’ve left the short stories alone for a couple of days, while I lost myself in The Narrow Road To The Deep North. Its 467 pages long but it took me only two days to read it and its one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in a very long time.
Winner of this year’s Booker prize, the story is about Dorrigo Evans, a surgeon who joins the army in World War II and ends up commanding 1000 men in a camp on the infamous Burma-Siam railway. Its a piece of Australian history that I’ve read many times, mainly in biographical form, but this rendering of it is just awe-inspiring in the way it tells this gruesome, heart-breaking story.
What is unique, and in my opinion its biggest achievement, is how every aspect of the story is infused with humanity. Where most war stories focus on one side, Flanagan goes into the minds of not only the Australian soldiers, but their Japanese tormentors. There’s the soldier who survives by clutching at any positive sign, as little as a bird’s egg, to get him through another day. Or another who survives on anger, directed at times against his fellow soldiers. But just as the reader is squirming with horror for the plight of the prisoner, we jump into the mind of the Japanese soldier who is about the kill him. There are no answers in this book, but many ways of reflecting on how and why humans do what they do.
Flanagan’s father was one of the prisoners who worked on the railway and he grew up hearing those stories. But its still an incredible feat to get so convincingly inside the head of men experiencing the sort of suffering and hopelessness most of us will never know. Says Dorrigo:
‘It’s our faith in illusions that makes life possible, Squizzy, he had explained, in as close to an explanation of himself as he ever offered. It’s believing in reality that does us in every time.’
The story is also unique in that we travel with Dorrigo Evans in his life before, during and after the war and see how he lives after such unbearable suffering. Flanagan also takes us into the lives of the Japanese soldiers in peacetime and tries to make sense of what it was like to be part of the Japanese army and what drove the men to do what they did.
But its also a love story, of Dorrigo’s overwhelming passion for his uncle’s young wife, whom he has an affair with before he goes off to war. A New York Times reviewer commented that this is a deeply flawed novel, and one of the reasons is this love story, which they describe as ‘a mash-up of D.H Lawrence with a Harlequin romance’. Flanagan himself has said that he could only tell this as a love story, because with love comes hope and that’s the only way to make sense of such horror.
I’m with him. The other way I read it was that its not possible to really be alive unless you’re driven by passion, be that of the romantic kind, or the sort that’s needed to try to save the lives of men under impossible circumstances.
The other strength of this story is the flawed character of Dorrigo Evans. He’s a natural leader, who nonetheless doesn’t believe he’s a good man, and attributes his heroics as a leader to the expectation his men have in him – he thinks its a self-fulfilling outcome from their faith. But in civilian life he’s a serial philanderer, cheating on the dutiful wife to whom he was engaged before war and who’s family connections benefit his post-war career. There’s nothing I think makes a story stronger than flawed characters, who are so much easier to identify with than the cardboard cut-outs so many books are full of.
But from a writers point of view, the real masterpiece of this story is its structure. It flows from Dorrigo’s childhood, joining the army, meeting Amy, the love of his life, the prison camp, his life as a respected surgeon and public figure, and his relationship with his wife, and finally his deathbed. The narrative jumps back and forth between these time periods, but also other characters lives. The key scenes and revelations are placed at pitch perfect intervals in the story. It really does fit together like a symphony and Flanagan said that it took 12 years to write, and was written as at least three complete books, all with unique forms, that eventually f0und their way into this final version. He also said that he took five months, working 11 hour days, to craft it to the final published version. If ever there was an example of how outstanding works of art are born of sheer, unrelenting hard work, this is it. Books like this just can’t be written in a year or two.
Without doubt, the best book I’ve read this year and one I’ll return to again to study its intricate structure.