Book review: the narrow road to the deep north

The Man Booker Prize winner for 2014 was Richard Flanagan's novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, centred around a love story taking place in Burma. A railway was built in Burma, with the aid of Japanese forced labour, during WWII. Richard's father was a prisoner of war on the "narrow road" so the railway has captivated his younger years. What is magical about the novel is that it avoids focusing on the gritty reality behind the working process in building that mean feat of engineering. It instead moves towards a love story taking place in Burma, with Dorrigo Evans, as the protagonist. Evans is an Australian, like the author himself, and his father before him, who works as a surgeon. Captured by the Japanese he becomes a bit of a heretic, for his courage in the face of adversary, and his fame is quite longlasting in Australia.

When middle age strikes him, he is almost a national figure, widely respected, and showered with one present after another, such as charity letterheads, and memorial coins. Dorrigo grows up distant from the hopes and dreams that big city life brings you and gets hired as a military surgeon after completing his medical schooling in Tasmania, where he was born, with the help of a scholarship. In Burma, Dorrigo, known to keep several mistresses around, meets a bespectacled young woman, Amy, who is married to his uncle, and he begins an affair with her. But he breaks all of this off eventually and goes off and gets married to a young girl from the Melbourne establishment, who is a very down-to-earth person. Dorrigo (real name "Alvin", that his wife insists on using to call him), as a prisoner of war was amidst the 9,000 Australians, who slaved on the 1943 railway, aptly called the "Death Railway" that ran its course through Burma and Thailand. The railway project killed many Allied prisoners of war, as well as gave a life of intensely hard labour to almost as much Asian labourers, made to force to build it.


The book is illustrative enough to take you into the world of the characters that made up the composition behind the railway, jumping from an adulteress to the wife of a member of Parliament. Contemporary and mystical, the novel does caricature a story rarely-explored nicely but it doesn't really take the reader deep into the backgrounds of the events that unfolded around Dorrigo's life, some of which even impacted his decisions. The retrospective of Dorrigo is certainly refreshing because it permits you to imagine the kind of characters that might have survived the tragedy. I particularly found the story of Dorrigo's fellow survivors, interesting to learn about. More on the love affair, Dorrigo thinks he has married the wrong woman, but she is very well-learned. His miserable experiences with Amy, a woman who believed love was an all-consuming experience, so much so that in the end, it destroyed her and her world, has clouded his feelings for Ella, his wife. Ella is an ambitious young woman, trying to keep her family's traditions alive: her father was a well-known solicitor in Melbourne, her mother was the daughter of a well-known grazing family, and her grandfather was the author of the federal constitution.

Ella is always scantily dressed, and has left behind all possibility of happiness behind to gain peerage and membership for life, in an upper-class Anglo society. She dreams of darkwood living rooms, clubs, crystal decanters of sherry, single malt, and is starkly different from Amy, who comes to the conclusion after the war is over, when she hasn't heard back from him, that Dorrigo must have died in the war. Dorrigo is a lonely soul, he is lonely in his marriage, in the company of his children, and even in his professional life. He was exhausted from life's experiences and the sordid nature of the protagonist often drags the book towards melancholia a little bit. Nevertheless, a very intimate portrait on the social landscape behind the Death Railway makes this book a very interesting read!

This review was written by Fashion Girl