I am usually very wary of all the Pulitzer/Booker Prize kind of things. Most of these books, with a few and cherished exceptions do not make sense to me or seem downright pretentious. The last “award winning” book I attempted was “The Luminaries” and post reading that I decided that the book was of incredible value should I take up weight training one day, as it’s only utility can be as a “dumbbell” – PUN INTENDED!! Ok, now that I have offended half the reading population, let me get on to the crux of the matter. My skepticism was at the highest therefore when I picked up Richard Flanagan’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” despite Stefanie recommending the book strongly and as anyone who is regular at my post know that I put a lot of faith in Stefanie’s book reviews. My friend Linda from Goodreads also had very high words about this book and for a history fanatic, it was even set during World War II, what more could I want? To seal the matters, the back cover informed me the main plot surrounded a Japanese POW camp in Burma; the subject is very close home as my grandfather was a doctor as well who served the British Army during World War II and was one of the allied POWs in the China Burma India Theater. But I was still not completely convinced; the wounds inflicted by the Luminaria Goldfinches were deep.
The book begins with the first very first remembrances of Dorrigo Evans, the son of a poor railway worker who works his way through colleges and university to become a doctor and a surgeon and finally as World War II erupts, a Colonel in the British Australian forces. Before joining the army, he had worked to make a place for himself in the society and was looked upon by the Melbourne upper class as an up and coming young man of great promise. His life is all set and he has even found a girl, Ella of an old Australian aristocracy and money to settle down with. During a visit to a book store, he meets a girl who suddenly disturbs his well laid plans and things begin to get complicated as he discovers that this girl, Amy is also his uncle’s second wife. As Amy and Dorrigo get more involved, the world heads towards the cataclysmic phase of the war and with the fall of Singapore, Dorrigo Evan, finds himself held as a POW by the Japanese in the Burma Railway project. Though he struggles with memory of Amy and his expected obligations towards Ella, he is forced to set aside his personal turmoil, in order to not only survive, but help other men, other soldiers survive the hell of “The Line” with shortage of food, medicines and horrific conditions and merciless treatment meted out by the Japanese, that makes each day a struggle to just exist. The war eventually ends and the POWs are liberated, but Dorrigo fails to find a personal peace, despite a successful career, marriage, children and eventually a resounding status as a war hero. As things come to a full circle, around him, he finally grasps at what matters, when everything is said and done and even when some of things are left unsaid in the end.
This is not an easy book to read. The descriptions of the POW camp conditions are enough to give one a nightmare. You cannot dismiss them as simple fictional work, because these things happened and to think that our grandparents went through this hell is enough to start syndromes of “survivor’s guild, 3 generations removed.” Historically the work is absolutely and succinctly accurate, there is absolutely no effort by Mr. Flanagan to embellish the reality; it is served to reader as is harsh, dark and difficult, in a take it or leave it style! The characters are all very human and though I could hardly relate to anyone of them and some of them completely lacked depth, they are all everyday people – people who walk /breathe/live among us. People, who vacillate on making any of the critical decisions of life, stand tall as heroes because they simply have no choice. People with pride and people with a love of life all come together simply because they have to survive, when surviving each day equates to “living”. There are lies, deceit and fecklessness, but there is also courage, love and a belief of good to overcome the bad. Finally what really really impressed me were Mr. Flanagan’s words – beautiful, soul searing poetic majestic words, that brought forth sensitivity, hope and feelings. Words like “He felt more soft raindrops, saw bright-red oil against the brown mud, heard his mother calling again, but it was unclear what she was saying, was she calling him home or was it the sea? There was a world and there was him and the thread joining the two was stretching and stretching, he was trying to pull himself up that thread, he was desperately trying to haul himself back home to where his mother was calling. He tried calling to her but his mind was running out of his mouth in a long, long river towards the sea” and “Amy, amante, amour, he whispered, as if the words themselves were smuts of ash rising and falling, as though the candle were the story of his life and she the flame”.
It is this power of words that makes this book, despite its immensely dark subject, beautiful and hopeful.