The Narrow Road to the Deep North

As Richard Flanagan writes in his Man Booker longlisted novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, “a good book…leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul.” This is indeed a good book by that definition, and at times Flanagan tries ever so hard to make us, the readers, reread our own souls through his compelling narrative, but somehow he falls short in doing so.
About a half the book is set in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp in the Siamese jungle during the Second World War. The Australian POWs are being forced to clear the jungle to make way for a railway that will connect Siam and Burma, thus allowing the transport of Japanese troops to embark on the invasion of the Indian subcontinent. Flanagan’s own father, in actuality, was one of those surviving POWs, although all the characters in the novel are fictionalized.
The horrific conditions of living and dying among these prisoners are brilliantly depicted by the author. The reader must have a strong stomach to tolerate the unbelievably brutal scenario that Flanagan lays out in describing the suffering of the enslaved Aussie POWs. As the cliché says “war is hell” and this jungle hell comes out right at you in Flanagan’s book in an emotional gut punch.
The protagonist, Dr. Dorrigo Evans, is a complex character, and the novel, through third person narration, recollects the doctor’s life, especially his imprisonment in the camp and his role as the ranking officer among hundreds of Aussie slave prisoners. Evans’ pre-shipping off to war romance with his young aunt, is written with an absorbing passion that draws the reader into the raw emotionalism of the narrative.
I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this very good book is selected for the Man Booker shortlist that will be announced next week.

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