About as opposite as you can get from watching a re-run of Friends, I am still feeling the hangover and lingering headache from this book, the sore feeling in my stomach from having been punched in the gut, repeatedly, over many days. Not since watching The Deer Hunter have I been so deeply affected by a work of fiction or art.
Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North follows a group of Australian POWs in WW2, chronicling in riveting and horrifying detail a single day in their lives working on the Thailand-Burma Death Railway in the early 1940s, from that point jumping back and forth through through time to also capture their lives leading up to that point, and after, for those who managed to emerge from the war at all. At the center of the story is Dr. Dorrigo Evans, an affable but internally conflicted Australian officer responsible for the 1.000 or so POWs at this particular POW camp, and as with other characters in the book, the prior years that led and shaped him into the person he was on that particular day, and how that day, in all its brutality and inhumanity, shaped him and his life thereafter. There is a love story central to Dorrigo’s life, and to the novel, but for me the themes of war, destiny, empathy, randomness and chance, blind loyalty, redemption, tragedy and loss all speak deepest.
Why would anyone read such a book? For the same reasons that watching too much Friends on repeat numbs the mind and soul, this book sharpens both. It forces you to think and ask questions of yourself, and of society, that you might not otherwise think or take the time to ask. “A good book … leaves you wanting to reread the book” comments Dorrigo early in the book, whereas, he says, “a great book compels you to reread your own soul.” This book will ask you to do just that.
PS – I say all of the above as someone who has watched many a Friends episodes over the years! 🙂