Taking its title from the famous Basho poem, Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize 2014 winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep South tells the story of working class boy done good Dorrigo Evans, surgeon, war hero, and national celebrity.
The novel opens with Dorrigo’s earliest childhood memories and proceeds to chronicle his life -time in a non-linear epic narrative which weaves in and out of its key moments.
We see him before, during, and after the war and watch how these strands combine to weave a story about survival and its aftermath.
The passages portraying the older Evans shows a man who has grown cynical about his renown as a war hero and feels himself to be a fraud.
We observe as he does the rounds of receiving various honours befitting a national treasure in an alcohol induced haze and pursuing a multitude of marital infidelities. He seems to be a haunted man unreconciled with himself.
The reasons for this unease with his present are rooted in his traumatic past. We learn that Dorrigo’s wartime experiences entailed being taken prisoner by the Japanese and sent to work on constructing the infamous Burma Death Railway.
In the midst of the horror Dorrigo has leadership thrust upon him and finds he must inhabit the role of the “big fella” a name his fellow prisoners have given him.
Knowing he must live up to the legend created by his men, he labours under the weight of leadership. In this role his is called upon to make unimaginable decisions which his post-war self struggles to reconcile with the decisions he made.
Also playing on Dorrigo’s mind is a torrid love affair he conducted with his uncle’s young wife before the war. This passionate encounter casts a long shadow over Dorrigo’s life and haunts him for the rest of his days casting a pall over his engagement and marriage.
Unsurprisingly, I found the parts relating Dorrigo’s war time experiences to be the most gripping part of the narrative. The sections featuring Dorrigo in old age also paint an interesting portrait of a survivor’s difficulty to reintegrate into everyday life. I also enjoyed the sub plots which followed the fates of some of the Japanese guards.
The passages portraying the affair were a little bit too Mills and Boonish for my tastes and I read them cringing a little as the prose veered towards the purple end of the spectrum.
I also found the story a little dragged out, and am still puzzling about the authors decision to follow a well-managed revelation in the plot to be followed closely an unlikely chance encounter, which for me was a coincidence too far and as such rendered what preceded it false.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a staunchly conventional novel which is both its strength and weakness.
Don’t expect any avant garde innovation, the prose is common place and isn’t going to set anyone’s world on fire, but if you are looking for a big pacey slab of narrative to get stuck into you could do worse .