“A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else.”
Dorrigo Evans, age 77, is a surgeon, a war hero; a celebrity of sorts, made famous by a television documentary about his time as a POW in a Japanese camp on the Burma Death Railway, using his medical skills to save what lives he could; a notorious womaniser.
But it’s the lives he couldn’t save that he carries around with him: Rabbit Hendricks, Darky Gardiner, Jack Rainbow. And it’s the woman he lost, Amy from whom he was parted when he headed to war fifty years earlier, who consumes him.
So The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a war story and a love story, telling of broken bodies and broken hearts. And both elements are equally absorbing, which is a hard trick to pull off.
Another thing for which Flanagan should be applauded is his handling of the guards: Major Nakamura, Corporal Tomakawa, and the feared Goanna; like the Aussies they have back-stories, and lives after the war. Flanagan gives us characters not cardboard cut-out villains – especially impressive considering his own father was a survivor of The Line.
Dorrigo, the hero, is similarly complicated, an agent for bad as well as good, both amoral and moral. He betrays his uncle by having an affair with his young wife, Amy but remains faithful in his love for Amy through half a century; he shows his own wife, Ella no affection and sleeps with his colleagues’ wives, yet he drives into a bush fire and burns his (surgeon’s) hands to save Ella and the children.
I read The Narrow Road to the Deep North in June 2016, over six months ago. There are still so many passages and characters stuck in my memory – there simply isn’t space in a short review like this to do this book justice! [It’s easy to see why it won the Man Booker Prize in 2016.]
One of the most arresting scenes takes place in the camp. A POW, Darky Gardiner, is being savagely beaten by three guards while Dorrigo and 300 other POWs watch. Dorrigo has a fleeting epiphany, the realisation that ‘violence is eternal, the great and only verity…man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal.’
Violence, by this analysis, is an abandonment of self.
Love, too, is an abandonment of self.
War and love: not two stories after all, but one.
Rating: **** One of the best books I’ve read this year.