August, 1943. In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma death railway, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his love affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier. Struggling to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from beatings, he receives a letter that will change his life forever. This savagely beautiful novel is a story about the many forms of love and death, of war and truth, as one man comes of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost.
Less is more. Where have we heard that before? Well, it was certainly said a few times this month concerning Richard Flanagan’s epic tome, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Even the title is too long, was Anne’s comment!
At close to 500 pages, this combined story of enduring love and futility of war was felt to be well written but, alas, too wordy.
This can be an often occurring theme in our discussions … when does a book lose its impact under the weight of too many words? That is of course within each and every reader’s discretion. In truth, the trick of engaging the reader with just the right amount of information and dialogue is a craft perfected by only a handful of talented writers, so where does this leave Flanagan and his latest offering?
Well, the majority of us did get through this novel and although not enamored by the main character, Dorrigo Evens or by the attempt at romance, there was an overwhelming respect for Flanagan’s personal quest at telling this story. Those of us who heard the author interviewed found it much easier to plough through the pages. His impeccable research and personal motivation added emotional depth that may have been lost to anyone not privy to the conversation.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North (being the Burma Railway) gave a poignant and emotive picture of POWs and their plight, and although many of us have heard and read of this sad history, Flanagan was still able to cleverly, and some agree, perfectly, engross the reader. We also felt including the Japanese perspective may have helped in securing the quality of the read.
Our conversation covered many of the topics any novel of war tends to inspire, but we did find ourselves pondering specifically the philosophy of training killers, Korean and Japanese relations, returning POWs (their strengths and their flaws) and whether Dorrigo was in fact Weary Dunlop! The individual stories wound into prison life gave us all gratification in a place and time where little of such could be found, adding yet another dimension to this story … a human touch that could only be bound in truth, not in imagination.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is listed for this year’s Miles Franklin Award.