To say that ‘The Narrow Road to The Deep North‘ is a book about the Burma Railway is like saying that The Titanic was a boat: it doesn’t do justice to either its magnitude or its lasting impression.
Dorrigo Evans is an Australian surgeon; his life is turned upside down when he embarks upon a passionate affair with Amy, the wife of his uncle. Despite her ‘perfect imperfections’, Dorry knows he has met the love of his life. WW2 erupts and Evans, a serving Army doctor, is captured by the Japanese and finds himself trying to save the lives of his comrades as they build a railway line under the orders of the Japanese Emperor. Thoughts of Amy sustain Evans but when he returns to Australia it is not to her, but to Ella. The war over, Dorrigo is feted as a hero but he cannot reconcile the horror of his experiences with a peacetime life in a loveless marriage. Interwoven alongside Evans’ story, are those of his Japanese captors, fellow prisoners and his lover. The beautifully-crafted plot is far more intricate than my brief summary allows and I felt some degree of closure when the final part of the novel’s three sections addresses the fates of some of the major characters once the war has ended.
Reading the middle section of the novel, which recounts life in the POW camp, was like watching a horror movie through my fingers. I literally just wanted it to stop: the heat, disease, violence, hunger, mud and shit. But for me these were words on a page. Knowing that the events are a fictionalised account, based upon the real experiences of Allied troops, heightened my revulsion. Some men had to live it, all I had to do was make it to the end of the chapter.
This novel moved me to tears several times; Flanagan describes emotion in a way which seems to capture the very essence of what it is to be human. This has been by far the hardest review I have tried to write on this blog; every version I’ve drafted has been deleted because it failed to convey just how this book affected me. Like a louse on a POW, Flanagan’s book niggled away at me, making me return to it time and time again to rasp at its layers of meaning, even though the process was painful. Now it’s over, I’m sure this book has left a scar on my mind, which will twitch like an old wound when I come across accounts of the Death Railway.