Richard Flanagan’s book shares its title with one of the most famous books in Japanese literature, which was written by Basho in 1689, who was perhaps one of the greatest of all haiku poets. It was written in the form of a nature journal that records the journey made by the poet in both prose and haiku.
Writing this epic novel, which took twelve years to complete, Richard Flanagan takes his father’s experiences as a prisoner of war, working on the Burma Death Railway as a background for his book.
Drawing on the Japanese great short story ‘Rashomon’, the novel follows several characters from the war and the POW camp in the jungle of Burma to post-war seeking to understand motives, responsibility and guilt from different points of view and describes the later lives and deaths of the former prisoners of war, the Japanese soldiers and Korean guards.
The novel follows Dorrigo Evans from humble beginnings in Tasmania to his enrolment into the army and his engagement to Ella, a woman from one of Australia’s well-respected families. While Dorrigo is waiting to be shipped out he meets a young woman, Amy, who turns out to be his uncle’s wife. They fall in love and have a passionate affair and
Dorrigo is torn between his duty to Ella and his love for Amy.
After serving in various parts of the world, he and his mates eventually become prisoners of war. They are sent by the Japanese to build a railway through Thailand and Burma. During this time they suffer unspeakable hardship and many of them die. Dorrigo however survives and returns to Australia after the war to be celebrated as a war hero for all that he did to help his comrades in the camp. Throughout his entire time in the camp Dorrigo struggles with his feelings for Amy and Ella. It would spoil the story though for those of you who want to read the book if I were to reveal the outcome!
The book has many underlying themes. It is about love and terror, death, war, truth and redemption. It is a love story as well as a story about war, but most of all it is about the human spirit. It shows us that good and evil exist in every human being, and that under the right circumstances every human being is capable of cruelty and horror just as well as of love and goodness.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is quite a disturbing read. It is filled with horror and cruelty, but at the same time it is a beautiful novel. Richard Flanagan is an exceptional writer, his language is often very beautiful and his descriptions are strong and vivid. Every sentence is filled with underlying meaning. No word is just accidental.
Book Group One agreed that even though it was an emotional read, we were glad that we had the opportunity to read and discuss this wonderful novel by Richard Flanagan.