Monday, 24 August 2015

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Lowdown: The story of the life of an Aussie who turned into a hero at the Japanese POW camps.
One of the ways my local library has been returning my affections is by pointing me at a books of types I am rarely exposed to. One such example is the award winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a book which - amongst others - can be described as a romantic tale. Definitely not my usual type of a book, but given the rewarding read you will not hear me complaining.
Dorrigo Evans is the Australian hero of this book that was written by an Aussie. Born in Tasmania during hard times, around a century ago, Dorrigo rose above the rest and eventually given the opportunity to move to Melbourne to study. There he jumps up the social ladder, turning into a surgeon and befriending women above his rank. Only that as much as he likes breathing the thin air of society's peaks, his real love lies with Amie - a woman he bumped into in South Australia, a woman he is forbidden to love through social conventions.
And then the war, World War 2, happens. Dorrigo is off his women to provide his medical skills to his fellow Australian soldiers. First fighting at Syria against French Vichy (a part of history we tend to forget), but later - through the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese - at a Japanese POW camp where the Aussies were utilised and brutalised as slaves in order to build a rail line that offered Japan the only hope to win the war. As the guy who ends up the highest ranking of the POWs, it is up to Evans to make decisions that would affect the life and death of his mates. But his position is a tough one, with the brutal Japanese demanding results on the other side.
That's just the beginning of Dorrigo's life, though. He survives the camps, true, but the rest of his life is shaped by that experience as well as his frustrated love. Actually, The Narrow Road to the Deep North does not settle with following Dorrigo Evans alone; we follow the course of other characters' lives, including - and that's a big deal - key Japanese figures from the POW camps.
The tapestry thus woven by The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a marvel of a read. The story is provided to us in the form of snippets, sometimes of thoughts, delivered in short chapters and third person form that flash back and forth in time like thoughts inside a dream. The result is a deep discussion on the question of where imprisonment truly lies and the notion that the Japanese POW camps, as brutal as they are, are "just" the worst manifestation of a prison in which we're doing time. Think of the Senegalese, fighting and dying in droves for the lost cause of French Vichy; then focus on Evans and his fellow inmates, trying to survive; follow that with the recently freed POWs rescuing the fish stock of a fish & chips shop and putting it back in the sea; and, as we are constantly reminded through repeat infidelities, the frustrated love life of Dorrigo as he is able to conquer every woman other than the one he truly loves. What can a person really do in the face of such opposition, locked as we are? Can we control our lives or is life controlling us? Charge the windmills, says Dorrigo Evans. Charge the window-seal!
Still, the POW experience is at the core of this book and what the reader is bound to remember the longest out of The Narrow Road to the Deep North. For all the good reasons in the world, it is those camps around which the book pivots. In the weeks since I have finished reading the book I certainly noticed how the matter keeps creeping up into my mind upon contemplation of matters, matters usually completely unrelated to the war or the camps.
Then there is a completely different type of magic to the book. To name one example, I was captivated by Dorrigo's feelings when he was out with an incredibly beautiful woman that wasn't his. Hey, Dorrigo, I know that feeling!
More seriously, from title to a lot of its structure, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is modelled after Japanese poems. In case you're wondering, though, the north stands as a symbol to the unknown.
Overall: A real masterpiece providing much food for thought. 4.5 out of 5 crabs.

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