I saw Richard Flanagan on Q and A a couple of weeks (or months perhaps) ago, he was not at all what I expected. He looked like a typical farmer ad sounded like a true ocker Aussie. Mind you what came out of his mouth gave himself away pretty quickly. But I will admit this is the first time I’ve picked up one of his books. I read it a couple of months ago now, but it was actually our July book club book. It was a contentious discussion with some general agreements but also some distinct differences of opinion….. just how book club should be!
The Narrow Road to the Deep North tells the story of Dorrigo Evans, a doctor who finds himself in a POW during WWII. As the Japanese camp commanders enforce an impossible work schedule to build the Burma railway with an ever decreasing store of food and medical supplies, Dorrigo becomes a leader among the other Australian POWs. As well the story flashes to Dorrigo’s life before and after the war and as a fascinating alternative perspective Flanagan also shows us the lives of the Japanese and Korea POW camp commanders and guards.
There are times when Flanagan’s writing just zings. His descriptions leave you no where to go except to confront exactly what the characters are experiencing. Life in a Japanese POW camp was horrific, we all know this. Flanagan made me see it, feel it, even smell it. I did not always want to do this, but his ability to transport one to that hellish place is quite remarkable.
Where the story falls down somewhat (less so for me than some of the others in our book club) is the personal story of Dorrigo Evan, particularly in the flashes of his life away from the war. He is not a particularly likeable character and is a very flawed man. I thought the story may have worked better had his nature been altered because of the war – which happened to many ex-POWs – but he seemed that same flawed individual before and after his wartime experiences. I did appreciate the analysis of the national hero that Flanagan embarks on. The idea that war heroes are as troubled (or more so) as the rest of us and have a very different internal view of themselves than the external portrayal.
For me the weaknesses of the story were far outweighed by strengths, for others it did not. I was drawn into the writing completely and while I didn’t always like Dorrigo I thought he was a rather intriguing character. Having loved the book, I would recommend it, but not without reservation.