Richard Flanagan’s novel is written in tribute to his father who survived the horrors of working on the Thailand to Burma railway. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is largely written through the perspective of an Australian surgeon called Dorrigo Evans; it comprises three main arenas, each with its own distinct emotional and physical tone, and each also communicating a vastly differing moods and settings: pre-war Australia, the building of the Burma railway and the aftermath of the war. The novel also uses Nakamura, the Japanese officer in charge of the prisoners of war as focaliser.
Throughout the text, different aspects of love are explored. The first part recounts the affair between Dorrigo and his uncle’s young wife, Amy. The memory of this love sustains him through the harshness of work on ‘the Line’. In the latter part of the novel, following the war, we follow Dorrigo’s attempts to find love with his wife Ella and their children, and also with his numerous liaisons outside marriage; all seem never to fill the void inside him.
Truth and the impact of lies on the characters and their lives run is constantly examined. Dorrigo receives a letter informing him of Amy’s death: “He had no idea it was a lie, the only lie Ella ever told him”. Telling “three hundred and ninety nine” men that they could go forward to the line is also a lie because none of the men were fit enough to survive. .These two particular lies highlight sense of futility and hopelessness in the narrative.
A Japanese haiku poem starts each section neatly and meaningfully, conveying the sense of conflict both externally and internally that also characterises the lives of Dorrigo and Nakamura. Both struggle to find resolution and redemption both during and after the war.
A world of dew
And within every dewdrop
A world of struggle.
Flanangan’s descriptions of the ravages of disease and deprivation to the bodies and spirits of the men working “on the line” are visceral, assaulting our senses and suggesting a deep darkness beyond humanity. There is cruelty in the ways in which the men are forced to carry on through the most excruciating pain and disease. They have “huge, jaundiced eyes were protruding like dirty golf balls – strange, lost things from another world”; men in the “cholera camp” have “.. strangely aged and shrivelled husks, … barked skin, mud-toned and black-shadowed, clutching twisted bones”. The ways in which the prisoners of war try to make sense of these horrors, both during their ordeal and in the years to follow, strike the harshest note.
Endings and mortality run thematically through the novel with references to Japanese death poems recurring that relate to the horrors of “the line”. Amongst the most powerful is that of a painted circle: “.. a contained void, an endless mystery, lengthless breadth, the great wheel, eternal return: the circle – antithesis of the line”. This poem, the “obol left in the mouth of the dead to pay the ferryman”, makes a lasting impression on Dorrigo at the beginning of the novel and again at its end; when he reaches his own death, Dorrigo reaches an understanding of the poem’s meaning: “he could taste the obol being forced into his mouth, he felt the void he was becoming”. The repetition of this particular poem encircles the narrative also giving a sense of the circle of life, giving a structural cohesion to the novel. With its strong sense of struggle to find a truthful approach to – and its grappling with – what life really means, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a worthy Booker shortlisted novel.