Richard Flanagan is a truly gifted writer, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North is an amazingly written novel with such powerful descriptive writing that one feels that they have been transported to another time and place. This book won the Man Booker Prize in 2014, and it is easy to see why; the book stays with you long after you’ve finished the last page.
The novel centers around the life of an Australian named Dorrigo Evans, and can roughly be divided into three parts. The first part is his life prior to World War II, and the third part is his life after the war. The middle part is about his being a POW forced to work on building the “Death Railway“, a 415 kilometer railway built by Japan in 1943 between Bangkok, Thailand, and Rangoon, Burma. Dorrigo was a doctor by profession, and he was also the leader of 1000 POWs working on building the railway. That’s it – I won’t say more about the plot to avoid any spoilers.
While the book is very good overall, the second section is superb. When one reads this, one feels like they are there in Thailand working on building this railway with this group of POWs. One can see, hear, and almost touch, the surroundings, and the characters all seem very real. Flanagan also describes the very harsh realities faced by these POWs; some of the scenes are quite graphic and brutal. But he also captures the camaraderie and the lighter moments that made this entire experience bearable.
The book has underlying philosophical themes on topics such as war, right and wrong, love, leadership, and the meaning of our lives. The plot jumps through different time periods at certain points in the book; this is a bit confusing initially, but one soon gets used to this. One interesting aspect of this book is that Flanagan not only provides perspectives from the Allied POWs, but also from Japanese and Koreans involved in supervising the building of this railway.
The only area which I felt could have been better is that the book does drag at certain points. Overall it is definitely a “page turner”, but at some points his writing drags on a bit too much when focusing on the details of a particular scene.
But this is more than made up by his magic with words – his analogies and his depiction of the surrounding environment in detail make this a memorable novel.
Over 100,000 people died building this railway, of which over 90,000 were forced civilian labor and over 12,000 were POWs. Richard Flanagan’s wrote this book as a tribute to his father, who passed away at age 98 on the day the book was completed, and who was a survivor of the Death Railway.
Rating: 4 out of 4 stars