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I haven’t read a book as intense and unrelenting as Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North in a really long time. I began the book on Wednesday and finished it last night so I could return it to the library. I wouldn’t recommend such a concentrated reading especially while one is eating pumpkin pie and drinking hot coffee while the characters in the book are starving to death. It felt a bit wrong. The book, however, is most excellent.

I managed to get in the library hold queue early, before the Booker Prize because of Sue’s marvelous review at Whispering Gums.

The main focus of the book is Dorrigo Evans. Born into a working class family he manages through smarts and hard work to become a surgeon. But his life takes a turn when World War II breaks out. He becomes an army doctor and has the misfortune of being captured with hundreds of other men by the Japanese. He ends up being the ranking officer among the Australian POWs he is sent with to work on The Line. The Emperor has decided these POWs will be put to work as slaves to build the Thai-Burma Railway, something western engineers declared could not be done. The book moves fluidly back and forth between pre-war, war, and post-war times. And it doesn’t always stay focused on Dorrigo Evans. We get to know some of the other POWs as well as a couple of the Japanese officers who are working the men to death. And each character, no matter how short his part in the story, is fully created. We know his motivations, we know his tricks to keep alive.

The only characters in the book I found a bit flat were the women. Because this isn’t just a war story, it’s a love story too. Dorrigo falls in love with Ella, a pretty girl from a well off family. She has connections that will help him go far. But when he meets Amy in a bookshop he realizes what he feels for Ella isn’t really love at all. This bold girl in the bookshop with the red camellia in her hair rocks Dorrigo’s world and then she’s gone, a chance meeting and nothing more. Only Dorrigo soon finds out that Amy is married to his uncle. Dorrigo and Amy have an affair.

When Dorrigo returns from the war it is Ella he marries but he spends the rest of his life thinking of Amy and how Ella is not her. He also becomes a womanizer. We end up knowing more about Amy but not much at all about Ella. Why does she stay with Dorrigo? How can she put up with his affairs and with his unspoken accusations that she is not Amy? She is a bit like Penelope to Dorrigo’s Odysseus. Which is appropriate given how Dorrigo loves poetry and his guiding poem is Tennyson’s Ulysses.

Poetry is an important element in the book. Dorrigo is always reciting it, it is his method of getting by in the POW camp as well as a means of seducing women. But Dorrigo is not the only poetry lover in the book. Two of the Japanese officers bond over their love of haiku. But whereas poetry for Dorrigo is something that guides him and touches him and sustains him, Colonel Kota and Nakamura had a different experience of poetry:

They recited to each other more of their favorite haiku, and they were deeply moved not so much by the poetry as by their sensitivity to poetry; not so much by the genius of the poem as by their wisdom in understanding the poem; not in knowing the poem but in knowing the poem demonstrated the higher side of themselves and the Japanese spirit — that Japanese spirit that was soon to daily travel along their railway all the way to Burma, the Japanese spirit that from Burma would find its way to India, the Japanese spirit that would from there conquer the world.

At the beginning of each section of the book a haiku appears. And, Flanagan’s title is the same as the title of the great poet Basho’s travel book of prose and poetry.

Flanagan has an unsparing eye for detail whether it be a POW debating with himself about when he should eat his daily ration of one small rice ball to a moving scene when the daily pyre of cholera victims and their possessions was being burned:

As Dorrigo Evans bowed his head and stepped away from the flames, Jimmy Bigelow stepped forward, shook his bugle to dislodge whatever scorpions or centipedes might have taken shelter there, and raised it to his lips. His mouth was a mess, the palate having shed its skin in rags. His lips had swollen up as well, and his tongue — so swollen and so sore that rice tasted like hot grapeshot — sat in his mouth like some terrible plank of wood that would not properly do its work.

And the scene goes on in great detail so we know just how difficult and painful it is for Jimmy to play the bugle but he does it anyway. Every single day for the newly dead.

You’d think that with all that the book would be depressing. But it isn’t. I’m not quite sure why. I definitely felt drained by the end, a little sad, but not depressed. So if you are thinking the subject matter of the book will be too overwhelming for you to bear, don’t worry. It’s full of horrors but Flanagan manages with pacing and scene and time changes to keep the reader from sinking into despair.

An excellent book. A moving book. A book I will not soon forget.

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