Images like floating dust motes sparkle and swirl into wraiths of characters almost human, and then slowly disperse, dissipating into – just dust. I have finished Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
This is the aftermath of the book feels like for me. In the novel’s end the main character, Dorrigo Evans, lays dying – gradually, spectrally, giving up his ghost.
I’m giving nothing away. It’s an end introduced at the book’s beginning while the book’s thick middle is so poignantly painfully dense in brutal narrative, there are times it seems it will impossible to endure.
Endure we do, as does Dorrigo as he soars through his small town Tazmanian youth, his education and rise to a class far above his origins. He marries a woman of that class but finds love in a taboo affair with his uncle’s wife. Amy, his life love, is forever linked with his first vision of her, a crimson flower behind her ear.
That love is what sustains Dorrigo through part of the worst and most memorable few years of his life, years spent overseeing, holding together and doctoring Australian POW’s who build the Thai- Burmese railroad for Japan’s emperor. It is Dorrigo’s job to bargain with Japanese captors, select those well enough to work, beg for food for the men, heal and operate on the sick to attend to burials of the dead. That love also dooms him to a hell more hellish than the camp.
What sets this book apart is it’s breadth; More than just a gripping tale, and it is that, (nod to my friend, Karen at Booker Talk), it embraces so much of the good in being human – love, marriage, persistence in the face of adversity, stoicism and unity, kindness. And the bad of being human: brutality, betrayal, deceit.
It spans war and peace, captors and prisoners, conquerors and the conquered.
A noble good man loses a sense of meaning when he loses love and a noble bad one find a kind of redemption in a good, loving woman.
The book nods to larger literary traditions. All through run lines of poetry – the poetry of two cultures. Dorrigo’s literary amulet is Tennyson’s Ulysses while his Japanese counterparts cite haiku. The book takes its title from Basho’s famous travelogue in which he records his travels from southern to northern Japan often depicting beauty in sharp images. The railroad -- the line -- the POWs build runs into another deep north – as Flanagan’s book records brutality in the sharp images.
The whole is framed by a flower, appropriate to both travelogues. Before the first page, a haiku by Basho:
of the peony.
And on the final page of narrative on which a heartbreaking secret has been revealed a haiku-like image:
“Dorrigo noticed growing at the side of the muddy trail, in the midst of the overwhelming darkness, a crimson flower. “