When a couple of months ago I asked the blog’s readers for recommendations of books written by Australian authors, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Richard Flanagan was one of the books I was told about (thank you, Robin!). The novel was awarded the 2014 Man Booker Prize, being described by the jury as a “remarkable love story as well as a story about human suffering and comradeship” (T. Masters, BBC, 2014).
In a nutshell, we are presented the story of Dorrigo Evans, a military surgeon in charge of the Australian Prisoners of War (POW) camp, during World War II. The prisoners were used as forced labour by the Japanese to build the Thailand-Burma railway (later called “The Death Railway”), one of the most infamous episodes of Japanese history. There are also other motifs sprinkled throughout the story (love, family, loyalty), but I think the central elements are the construction of the railway and the post-war trauma.
I find it interesting to know that Flanagan’s story was inspired by real stories of people he knew – his father was one of the Australian POW who worked on the Death Railway, a Latvian friend of his parents inspired the love storyline, and he also met several Japanese guards who were in charge of the Death Railway project (Flanagan, The Sydney Morning Herald, 2013). That’s why the story feels so authentic, enriched with many details about small things like the smell in the camp or the taste of rice balls.
For me, the most moving and meaningful parts of the book were the ones related to life during and after war. And it gets so interesting because events are presented not only from Australians’ point of view but also from the perspective of Japanese guards. For example, we find out the difficulties of both sides – while Australians were dealing with starvation and malaria, Japanese guards were being pressed by their commanders to speed up the construction process by any means.
Something that was shocking to me (among many other parts of the book) was the reason why Japanese were pushing so much the fast construction of the railway:
“It’s not about the railway [..] or even the war [..] It’s about the Europeans learning that they are not the superior race [..] and learning that we are.” (Japanese guard)
Other intense moments were characterized by violence, surgeries, medical conditions, and also post-war reflections suggesting that both sides of the war camp (Australians and Japanese) were actually prisoners of war, being similarly traumatised after the war ended. I personally did not like the love story in which the main character was involved, somehow it did not convince me of its beauty and authenticity. In contrast, the war-related parts much more convincing and captivating.
To conclude, I enjoyed reading “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” as it offered a very realistic and moving image of events happening during WWII from a geographical area that I was not familiar with. Even though I will not add it to my favourite books list, I would recommend it to readers who are interested in historical events or willing to discover a part of Australian and Japanese history.
‘Till next time … happy reading!