Wednesday, 26 August 2015

The Narrow Road To The Deep North - Book Review

I write this review in the absolute knowledge that I cannot do the book justice. Just can’t. I do not have the words. What I can impart are some of the feelings it left me with, powerful and shifting, along with this sense that I have just emerged from a deep and profound encounter with the human condition. Leave all that you know or think you know at the door, because Richard Flanagan is going to drag you by the collar through pretty much the entire gamut of human experience as you accompany him on this tour de force. The premise is straightforward enough, an account of the life of a fictional character called Dorrigo Evans, an aspiring medic whom falls in love with his uncle’s young wife before being torn away to war and eventually experiencing and surviving the horrors of the Burma railway. Thing is, whilst the book is about him, it is just as much about us. About humanity at its best, its worst, its most passionate, most cruel, most desperate, and most noble. My God how we seem so capable of reaching the heights and plumbing the depths. Our ability to rationalise the obscene, justify the un-justifiable, to cease to treat our fellows as anything recognisably human. In contrast, we see bravery and resilience and a refusal to yield to our base nature when we share the experiences of the many astonishing characters whom are also forced to endure those terrible months and years building those doomed railways. And the Japanese guards and Korean soldiers were as much prisoners themselves. Prisoners of the Emperors insane insistence that it was possible to build such a railway through the jungle without any of the tools normally required for such a vision. They saw those captured POW’s as dishonourable men, shameful creatures by virtue of their refusal to do what was perceived as the honourable thing, which to the Japanese was to commit suicide rather than be captured. In the eyes of their captors this at once rendered the prisoners as less, as perhaps sub human. And their consequent treatment appears to flesh this out. Starved and worked quite literally to death, thousands diminish to hundreds, and eventually to fewer still, death the norm rather than the exception. And as the railway slipped behind schedule the burdens upon survivors increased, forced to work longer, to survive on less. One truly harrowing episode see’s Evans seeking to perform an operation on the gangrenous leg of one poor soul whom had already suffered two previous operations. Only by this time there is really no leg left, and there is a true sense of desperation when Evans tries repeatedly, desperately to seal up the femoral artery as the patient bleeds out amidst the filth and the mud. And what becomes of the men that do survive these horrors? They are of course forever changed, and the book shifts focus perfectly as it explores how some cope, and how some do not. And what of the Japanese that evaded capture and execution? It emerges that some evolve into what we might term kind and benevolent creatures, able to justify their actions and continue living in the absence of other options. What was once evil appears to become, if not quite contrite, somehow less evil? The question mark is deliberate because I do not know whether I could ever see such men as good. Suffice to say they moved on, they become something else, ascribing the war as a unique time, and the demands upon them unique demands. Many felt proud to have served their Emperor, able to achieve the inner moral justification that the treatment of those prisoners was a necessary requirement of unique times. And then there is the love story that underpins the first 3rd of the book, the young Dorrigo Evans bewitched by his Uncle’s wife Amy, herself trapped in a marriage of convenience to a kindly man. Adulterous yes. Immoral perhaps. Yet both Amy and Dorrigo are drawn to each other with an intensity that neither is able to resist, and their relationship proves to be the defining intimacy of their lives. There is no grand re-union. No happy ending. For the world rarely grants us such convenience. And this strikes at the root of The Narrow Road To The Deep North. It is not just a book about lives. It somehow manages to distill life itself, exposing the raw nature of our humanity as the clumsy, cruel, and sometimes beautiful thing that it is. And finally a word on the writing style of Flanagan himself. Compact, taut, nothing wasted, no dreary self indulgence. The lad can write and then some. I said at the outset that I cannot do this book justice, and I know as I read this that I haven’t. But I just had to write about it. I had to say something. It moved me. It screamed at me and it made me think. For this alone I am grateful, and I commend it to you without reservation.

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