I have three words for you to describe this year’s Booker Prize winner, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. They are: Harrowing. Gruelling. Devastating.
And yet read this precis, straight from the Man Booker website: “The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a love story unfolding over half a century between a doctor and his uncle’s wife.” This is THE most misleading summary of a book since someone called Anna Karenina a light hearted romp and Joan Collins a political satirist. Have they even READ this book? Perhaps it is a love story, but only when simultaneously described as a war story, torture story, psychological study of brutality, ageing, memory, nationalism, identity, good and evil, humanity… this is an insanely complex book which you’ll struggle to get your head around – if you have the courage to even try to take on the dark side of humanity explored so pitilessly throughout.
The heart of the story is in the WW2 POW camps building the notorious death railway through Myanmar. It loosely tracks the story of Dorrigo Evans, a surgeon who becomes the leader of the starving, slowly dying band of Australian prisoners, subject to gobsmacking brutality and horrors at the hands of their Japanese captors.
Very roughly, the book can be split into thirds: a pre-war love story (with shadows of Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong), “life” as a POW working on the railway, and the lives of the victims and captors after the war. The time in the camp itself dominates through the sheer power and horror. Flanagan does not flinch from a detailed depiction of life so awful you can scarcely bear to read on. It is shocking, shocking, shocking. One can scarcely believe human beings are capable of such cruelty and deprivation. Flanagan’s father was one of these prisoners, so you know that every care has been taken to bring this world to life in full, horrifying fidelity. For all its excellent writing, these parts of the book (they are not all in one chunk, emphasising the impact of the camps on the whole lives of those involved) are barely readable, they are so dark.
But just when you’re thinking that the Booker prize was awarded almost in shocked admiration for someone daring to take on such a subject, you reach the section about the future lives of the prisoners and captors, and it’s here that the real depth and genius of the novel emerges. It would be far too pat to say that the prisoners emerge scarred and flawed while their captors emerge with elements of good and humanity – though these things are explored. Rather, an almost unfathomable human complexity emerges from each character. You cannot feel that Flanagan is saying “Look – he is x or y after all.” There is no simplicity in this world. The Korean prison guard who we saw beat a character to death cannot comprehend his execution when worse things were done to others and is shown in many ways as an innocent pawn – but he feels pride in what he did and is even given the appalling line: “It was the happiest time of my life.” The Japanese commander who presided over this awful regime is also a drug addict to overcome malaria symptoms and goes on to be known by his family as a kind, good man – who chooses to see the actions of his earlier self as right and proper.
“He understood that somewhere in that goodness his wife and daughters loved in him, that goodness which had saved a mosquito’s life, was the same unswerving goodness that had allowed him to devote his life, no matter the anguish and the doubts, to the Empire and the Emperor … For he loved poetry above all, and the Empoweror was a poem of one word – perhaps, he thought, the greatest poem … And like all great art, it was beyond good and evil.“
Meanwhile, former prisoners fall apart in myriad ways – the only constant is the hugely distorting impact of this unfathomable experience.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North makes a mockery of morality and sermonising. In the face of the full horror of what humanity is capable of, there can be no categorising of good or bad. All is chaos, nightmare: “For the Line was broken, as all lines finally are; it was all for nothing, and of it nothing remained. People kept on longing for meaning and hope, but the annals of the past are a mudy story of chaos only.” And yet this is not the final message of the novel. Throughout, the horrors are set alongside the order of Japanese culture and poetry – the book’s title is taken from a 17th Japanese poem). And just when you think that everything is meaningless, an incident appears to assert the meaning – in an instant perhaps, maybe for just one person – of love, family, comradeship.
When it comes to it, you simply can’t distil this book down to being about any one thing or having any sole message. It evades classification. It is deep, painful, uncovering a whole new take on what is means to be a human. It makes a mockery of books like Slaughterhouse-Five, with their ‘war is madness’ reductionism. I can’t recommend it as such, as it’s awful in the oldest and truest sense of that word. But having struggled through much of it, now I’ve finished I keep finding myself reaching for it and feeling disappointed that I’ve finished something quite so astonishing. You won’t “enjoy” it. But wow – it’ll knock you out.