I’m adding Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish to my queue (for next year, not this year). The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a show of real skill, but I suspect Flanagan’s other works are better. Narrow Road took 12 years to complete. Something I see in my own writing, and have seen in other works, is that a story curdles when you take too long to finish: the side plots become muddy and focus is lost. The portion of this book built on the war and POW camp earns a 5 of 5. The other half, well… we’ll get to that.
The story jumps around in time and perspective, but we begin with an aged Dorrigo Evans, post-WWII, who is having a hard time with his identity of a war hero:
He understood that he shared certain features, habits and history with the war hero. But he was not him. He’d just had more success at living than at dying, and there were no longer so many left to carry the mantle for the POWs. To deny the reverence seemed to insult the memory of those who had died. He couldn’t do that. And besides, he no longer had the energy. (14)
The novel flashes back to the time before Dorrigo left for the war, before his marriage, when he had an affair with his uncle’s wife, Amy. The opening third of the novel bounces between his early days in a Japanese POW camp and his surprisingly tedious affair. Eventually, Flanagan caps the Amy sections with a cliffhanger and spends time in the camp where Dorrigo is serving as leader and doctor for 1,000 Australian POWs as they labor on the Burma Railway. Narrow Road is more about the experiences of a few men than a wide historical overview. This is where Google comes in (if your history classes, like mine, did not focus on the Pacific theater). This railway was meant to join Siam and Burma, so that Japan could shore up troops and maintain a grip on Burma. It’s estimated that 330,000 men (laborers and POWs) worked on the railway, roughly 100,000 of whom died. The events of the book occur during monsoon season; the men fall victim to gangrenous ulcers, cholera, beri beri, and starvation.
The heart of the novel runs from page 199-227 and covers an amputation, a beating, a drowning, and the fate of the railway. Despite being wholly gruesome, it features the finest writing of the book. The amputation is the most intense scene I’ve read in a fictional piece. Midway through the procedure, there is a moment of hope:
Dorrigo Evans kept working, more slowly now, more carefully. […] He would save this man’s life. There was the recuperation to get through, the chance of infection. But his chances were now good. Not great, perhaps, but still good. He concentrated on doing the best job he could now, imagining a middle-aged J— with children, his stump on a cushion. Alive. Loved. And he knew that what he did was not pointless, without reason; that he had not failed. (208)
It’s this hope that makes the aftermath such a gut punch, even though the reader knows there is no other possible outcome. The situation is so grim that telling you it ends tragically is not a spoiler. I’m perpetually in awe of scenes like this, scenes I know I could never write. This moment is graphic without being gratuitous; it balances hope and despair; it summarizes Dorrigo’s experience of futility in the camp.
The novel also offers a number of sections from the perspective of Japanese guards after the war. While I appreciate Flanagan’s effort to flip perspective to round out his story, these sections accomplish little. Much of their content was presented in the camp scenes, at which point it was far more effective:
They drank some more sour tea, and Colonel Kota grew wistful about not being at the front, able to die for the Emperor. They cursed the jungle, the rain, Siam. Nakamura spoke of how hard it was to keep driving the Australians out to work, and how if they were only a little more accepting of the great role destiny had given them, he wouldn’t have to drive them so pitilessly. It wasn’t in his nature to be so harsh. But in the face of the Australians’ intransigence, he had to be. (88)
And about that affair between Dorrigo and his uncle’s wife, Amy…
I’ve seen a few reviews gripe that Dorrigo isn’t a protagonist you can properly get behind on account of his womanizing. My view is that fictional characters can’t always be moral paragons; their struggle to find/do the “right” thing is fuel for the narrative. Whether you think he is wrong or justified with Amy, or in his later search for extramarital flesh, these sections are boring. Flanagan has intense descriptive power and it’s a waste that he can’t do more to create real sexual tension and attraction. After the war, it’s fine that Dorrigo’s scenes are flat—this speaks to a sort of numbness, that the time of heightened reality ended in the camp. But before the war, it shouldn’t be hard for Flanagan to convince the reader of Dorrigo and Amy’s enthusiasm for each other.
It’s all stilted, right from the get, when Dorrigo makes his first move by licking blood off Amy’s thigh. Thigh-licking = fine. Blood-licking = bizarre. Also, this made me laugh:
But he was nothing like a lamb—more like a wolf, she thought, holding himself there steady, poised, waiting, a black wolf, his gorgeous black hair in his armpits slicked with soap. […] She wanted to bury her face in those armpits there and then and taste them, bite them, shape into them. (109)
Laughter isn’t a moodkiller IRL. And this passage does convey a certain intimacy… but it feels stuffy, like Flanagan is trying reeeaaallly hard to stay classy and literary while discussing S-E-X. I had a lucrative Will Edit For Food program in college and this is totally how many students wrote about sex when they knew a professor would read it.
Unfortunately for Amy, she isn’t particularly interesting. Her portions of the narrative discuss her marital misery, Dorrigo’s inertia with Ella (his fiancée), or their lovemaking. Neither can discuss their shared attraction with convincing passion. If Amy is the yardstick that defines Dorrigo’s future disappointment with other women, there has to be /something/ about her. There must be /some/ connection between them. Instead, there is lousy, pseudo-philosophical babble:
We’re not just two, he said.
Of course we’re two, or we’re nothing. Amy said. What do you mean we’re not two?
But he didn’t know what he meant. At that moment he felt that he existed in the thoughts and feelings and words of other people. Who he was he had no idea. (108)
Sidenote: You may have noticed the lack of quotation marks when characters speak. How is this getting to be a thing, and when can it stop? This technique only works smoothly in scenes with two characters; the constant interjections of “Jack said” and “Dorrigo said” and “whoever said” are irritating. The jerk between believing a character is thinking, then realizing they’re speaking (or vice versa), is distracting when it could all be cleared up by a use of punctuation.
Overall: 4.2 (out of 5) This book defies an “overall” rating. The core of the novel lifts up everything around it. The force of Flanagan’s writing in the camp scenes is astounding, terrifying, and shocking. He consistently finds new ways to describe the wet jungle, the sickness, and the horror without becoming repetitive or resorting to cliche. That he can make something so unimaginable feel tangible for the reader, then struggle with a common affair, bewilders me.
Translation: Read it, or part of it. It won the Man Booker Prize, so maybe I’m exhibiting flawed judgement in not being all over it.