A review of The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Long Road to the Deep North
By Richard Flanagan
Vintage Australia
ISBN: 9781741666700, 23/09/2013, 480 pages, $32.95aud

In the present tense of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, protagonist Dorrigo Evans is a celebrated surgeon, lauded for his work, his bravery, and perhaps for his larrikinism, as he continues to have intense affairs, even in his eighties. As with all of Flanagan’s work, the book is not an easy read, asking the reader to suspend a sense of natural progression as the narrative moves between present and past in random motion that also confuses these things as we slide in and out of Dorrigo’s memories.

Dorrigo is a veteran of world war II – a former prisoner-of-war, and his experiences form a sub-plot to the novel, taking us in and out of the minds of his co-prisoners as they work the “line” – the hellish Thai-Burma “death railway”, and suffer intense privations.  The reader experiences this suffering first hand, in the intense and grizzly experiences of the prisoners as they are worked, cruelly and inhumanely, to death in many instances. The writing in these sections is vivid, and powerful, never diminishing the humanity or even humour of the characters or the almost domestic detail of the horror that they experienced. The reader is right there with Jimmy Bigelow, Darky Gardiner, Rooster MacNeice, Jack Rainbow, Squizzy Taylor and others as they fight dysentery, starvation, cruel beatings, and terrible conditions. As Dorrigo relives his own experiences they transform into something else—not undone, but less malevolent:

His mind slowly distilled his memory of the POW camps into something beautiful. It was as if he were squeezing out the humiliation of being a slave, drop by drop. First he forgot the horror of it all, later the violence done to them by the Japanese.  In his old age he could honestly say he could recall no acts of violence.

The title is taken from a book by Matsuo Bashō. Flanagan’s own writing is poetical itself – both taut and precise, and rich with metaphor and imagery, but The Narrow Road to the Deep North is enriched with the classic poetry – both English and Japanese. Basho and other haiku is woven through the story, providing a unifying and thematic thread that ultimately brings together characters on both sides of the war. There is Tennyson’s “Ulysses”, Poetry may change ‘nothing’ – the sadistic suffering inflicted upon the prisoners can’t be undone, but time can bring a softening, and peace, so we might come to remember the poetry rather than the pain. Even the worst guards, such as Nakamura, can transform through love and kindness, as this death poem by Hyakka indicates:

Winter ice
melts into clean water—
clear is my heart.

Though The Narrow Road to the Deep North is very much a novel of war, and the impact of the war experience, it is also a love story. It is perhaps the love story itself – and the many manifestations of love, as it appears in the book, that affects the transformation.  Love too is a permanent force, leaving its imprint, and changing us. Dorrigo has his doomed love story with his uncle’s wife Amy that permeates the story:

Occasionally, she remembered a room by the sea and the moon and him, the green hand of a clock floating in the darkness and the sound of waves crashing, and a feeling unlike anything she had known before or ever knew again.

But there are other types of love. There is the éros that keeps Dorrigo chasing after sex, and the oblivion and forgetfulness it offers him. There is the philía that characterises Dorrigo’s love for his comrades – both living and dead — a tenderness that is reflected in many scenes throughout the novel, and the agape Dorrigo has come to feel about his family – his wife Ella and children, especially as demonstrated during the bushfire scenes where he rescues them.

Though there is much horror in the book, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is ultimately redemptive.  By shining a light on a particularly low moment in history and coupling that with the everyday details of life, of enduring love, of the impact of time and memory on our own history and the broader history of the world, Flanagan creates a book that is at once familiar and foreign, and ultimately deeply satisfying. As Issy put it:

This world of dew
is only a world of dew—
and yet.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks and Paul W Newman is her next guest. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.