What a book this is! You might argue its literary merits as opposed to some of the other nominees this year, but as far as blood, sweat, tears and horror go, The Narrow Road to the Deep North has it all. It’s a novel that stays with you, and for that alone, it deserved to win.
Based on his own father’s experiences as a prisoner of war in Burma, Flanagan tells the story of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian surgeon fighting in WW2 and eventually trying to save the lives of the hundreds of men in his unit slaving as POWs in the building of the Burma Death Railway. As a young man, training as a surgeon and newly engaged, Evans had a short but intense love affair with his uncle’s wife, Amy. The end of this affair has broken him, and he increasingly sees his suffering in the war as a way of forgetting and redeeming himself. Right up to the end of his life as a war hero and celebrated doctor, Evans is an empty, bored, and emotionless man who has unfulfilling affairs and struggles to remember Amy and his feelings for her. Like almost everyone he encountered during his life, he has little joy in life left and struggles with its meaning and purpose.
Where the affair with Amy forms the framework of the novel, at its core is the horror of the Burma Death Railway and the thousands of men who lost their lives for it. Told from various perspectives, the years of starvation, disease, inhumane working conditions and unrelenting violence on the part of the Japanese commanders come alive on the page to make even the most hardened reader flinch (or so I would imagine). There’s one scene depicting a beating that lasts for so long that you end up willing the victim to die rather than marvel at the human body’s resilience any longer. The haunting character of scenes like that one is in part due to the fact that it depicts a reality that we would perhaps rather not know too much about, and in part due to Flanagan’s style. It’s flowery, full of adjectives and out to impress with its fullness of emotion. It might seem overdone, it might even be overdone, but the things Flanagan portrays are powerful, and it feels right to use a powerful language to tackle them. The POWs, after the war has ended, don’t talk about their experiences. They are not Flanagan’s personal experiences, and probably not all his father’s, either, but his novel is driven by a need to tell those stories, to describe the horror that shaped those men for life, and if it takes a novelist to paint a fuller picture, then so be it.
The love that turns out to be the defining force in Dorrigo Evans’ life is described in only a few pages, but it packs a punch in its intensity. It must be difficult to write about love in a way that will not bore the reader who’s seen it all, and it’s just as difficult to read about love without feeling bored, unmoved or reminded of other writing. In keeping the full, emotional style he uses for describing the horrors of war, Flanagan manages to brilliantly portray the confusion and helplessness of those who love while knowing they shouldn’t. Dorrigo and Amy are swept along by a force they can neither understand nor fight, and I haven’t read many novels that were able to put such emotions in words.
Suddenly she wished he would just disappear. She wanted to push him away, and would have, but she was terrified of what might happen if she touched him.
The asking and the wanting.
It could not be and it was, and she wondered if it would ever go, this feeling, this knowing, this us.
For all the moral questions, the descriptions of indescribable inhumanity, the emotional emptiness of those having to deal with life at its worst, it’s those few pages in the novel that made me a fan of Flanagan’s writing. The intensity of Dorrigo’s and Amy’s emotions is breathtaking, and I’m still reeling. If it’s powerful feelings we’re looking for, upheaval and surrender, none of us will ever need to have an affair again. Anything we ever wanted to know about love, it’s here in the writing.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North shows once again that the Man Booker jury loves picking big novels with big aspirations. I would have loved to see Ali Smith walk away with the prize, but I have to admit that what Flanagan set out to do, he did well. It’s a great book to have read.