BOOK REVIEW: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flannagan

Forever after, there were for them only two sorts of men: the men who were on the line, and the rest of humanity who were not. In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Burma Death Railway, 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 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. 

Publisher: Vintage
Pages: 464

One of my New Year's Resolutions was to get back to reading more of what I wanted to rather than focusing just on the books that I had been sent which were waiting for review. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a book that my husband had told me about and I just hadn't got round to reading. I am so, so glad that I took the time to read this book, it is one of those that I will not be able to forget. I've always wanted to know more about the Burma Death Railway as my husband's great uncle perished there. It was only after I'd finished the book that I discovered that the author's father had been a POW there. This shocked me a little as I thought it was incredibly brave of Richard Flannagan to write a fictional account of something his father has actually endured. The pressure must have been huge. The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the Booker Prize in 2014 and it is richly deserved. I could not believe how many emotions I went though over the 464 pages of the story.
Dorrigo Evans was a surgeon and prisoner of war on the Burma Death Railway. His job was extremely difficult as he was effectively patching the men up so they could go back out to work; back-breaking soul-destroying labour that would inevitably lead to their death. Dorrigo is also plagued by the guilt and loss he feels over the love affair he had with his uncle's young wife, Amy. The book goes back and forth between Dorrigo as a young man and his relationship with Amy; his horrendous time as a POW and the time after when he has become almost a celebrity, a war hero and survivor whose story everyone wants to hear.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is about love in its many different forms. It reminded me a little of Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks in the way it mirrors graphic, terrifying descriptions of war with the details of a passionate, consuming love affair. So many men are worn down and emotionally destroyed in the book but the majority cling on to some sort of love; almost to remind them of their humanity. Love for a wife, a sibling, a comrade, it is what keeps them pushing forwards rather than giving up completely.
I was so impressed by the way in which Richard Flannagan dealt with the Japanese characters in this book. It would have been so easy to deliver stereotypical 'bad guys' but he really tried to explore the culture and thoughts behind their actions and treatment of the POW. I wasn't necessarily expecting him to follow these characters after the war but some of these chapters were the most interesting.
The descriptions in this book of the camp and daily horrors make for very uncomfortable reading but they show Richard Flannagan's immense talent. I have found myself thinking about his book so much and this review barely covers how it effected me. It is a book I know that I will re-read again and one I will tell many others about.

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