Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North has immense scope. Perhaps some readers will avoid it, thinking it a war novel, but it is actually a novel about all of life. At its centre – literally and metaphorically – is a lengthy account of the characters’ lives and deaths on the Burma Railway during World War Two, but it extends before and after that period to show the full impact of war. One of its significant achievements is to show how living and dying in a prisoner of war camp is an intensification of the drives and dilemmas all of us live with.
Appropriately, in telling of torture, starvation and cruelty, it’s a brutal novel. The novel’s brutality means it earns its kindnesses and moments of love so much more than other novels. One particular scene shines with love, and that is the generous hospitality of the Greek fish and chip shop owner; to describe it would give too much away, when I do hope you read it. In the world of this novel, it’s these moments of light which are the best one can hope for in life.
Despite its brutality, it’s also a novel of compassion, and an important source of this are the convincing chapters from the point of view of Japanese officers and a Korean guard who were overseeing the camp. Flanagan performs a remarkable feat of empathy to make their worldview and behaviour explicable, to give us a sense of what it might have been like to have been inside their minds, and in this to re-humanise them and remind us that we may not have been as heroic as we think in the same circumstances.
It is a narrative unusually driven by co-incidence. I think it works; it reinforces the novel’s random universe. While the co-incidences often drive the plot forward, it’s not in a convenient way. Instead, the co-incidences make the characters think there must be some meaning when there is not. Dorrigo happens to run into Amy in the bookshop, before he knows that she’s the new wife of his uncle. It helps draw them into an affair this time, but the next time he runs into her by chance, giving an opportunity to resolve so much, nothing is resolved. Instead, the cruelty of life is reinforced.
It’s a powerful novel, and I found it compulsive, if not brilliant. Why do I feel it falls short of brilliance? Perhaps it takes on more than it can accomplish in its length, and its attempt to convey the whole course of so many characters’ lives means none of them are conveyed fully enough. Even with Dorrigo Evans, I felt I was only beginning to see him fully painted when the novel ended. But that’s an initial judgement – I may need to let the dust settle on this one.