The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the Man Booker Prize in 2014, and is the first book in my challenge to read through all of the winners of this award.
It is a complex story about Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor who was held in a Japanese POW camp during the Second World War, working on the Burma-Siam railway – the Death Railway, as it became known. But it is also a love story. Evans has an affair prior to joining the War effort, and this comes to haunt him during his time in the POW camp, as well as post-War as he becomes a celebrated doctor.
I struggled with this novel at first – the first few chapters jump around in time without warning, and I found it hard to follow. The writing also took some getting used to – it’s not bad (far from it) but there are some long, involved sentences that mean that this isn’t the easiest of reads. After the first few chapters, however, the story settles down and focuses on his time in the POW camp and the affair he has prior to leaving Australia. From there, I found it easier going.
Evans’ time in the POW camp is presented in bleak and gory detail. The malnutrition, the disease, the senseless beatings at the hands of the guards are presented in detail. This isn’t done to simply shock the reader, however, as Flanagan uses the extreme conditions to portray the humanity of the assorted prisoners and how they keep going, keep surviving, even as the railway and the environment sap their will and their life out of them.
These conditions also drive Evans to be the best man that he can be as he takes it upon himself to look after the men around him. He tries to instil morale, and encourages the men to keep clean in order to help them stay as healthy as possible. Any wounds are almost sure to get infected, and he does his best to put his medical knowledge into action when it’s needed despite the limited tools and the filthy conditions he is forced to operate in.
And whilst all of this is going on, the the love affair he had prior to leaving Australia haunts him constantly. We see in the novel what it is to fall in love, completely and irrationally, and how this affects him for the rest of his life. Despite it being an affair – she is married, he is engaged – it is presented as a beautiful, wondrous thing, and perfectly captures what it is to fall in love.
This is an incredibly complex novel. It is well-plotted, and all of the loose ends are tied up beautifully by the end. It’s not the easiest of reads, but it’s definitely worth the effort.