It’s interesting that many cite Richard Flanagan (born 1961) as one of the (if not the) most important Australian writers of his generation. That’s quite a claim from a list that includes Tim Winton (1960), Christos Tsiolkas (1965), Geraldine Brooks (1955), Michelle de Kretser (1957), Gail Jones (1955), Elliot Perlman (1964) and Kim Scott (1957).
But a quick scan of his literary output certainly points to him being deservedly placed among this hallowed company. His second novel, The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1998), collected the Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize and the Bookseller’s Choice Award (as well as reaching the Miles Franklin shortlist). This was followed in 2001 with Gould’s Book of Fish: Flanagan once more picked up the Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin – but he also won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Australian Literary Society Gold Medal for his third novel. His next, The Unwanted Terrorist, was well-received in 2006 but bypassed when it came to awards: Wanting (2008) collected both the Queensland and Western Australia Premier’s Prize.
His latest, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and more than twelve years in the writing, is proving to be Richard Flanagan’s most successful book, winning the 2014 Man Booker Prize (although it surprisingly failed to win the Miles Franklin Award).
The Narrow Road to the Deep North tells the story of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor haunted by a wartime love affair with his uncle’s young wife. Post war, having survived the horrors of the Japanese POW camps on the Burma Railway, he finds his growing celebrity as a war hero at odds with his sense of his own failings and guilt. Full of doubts and loathing, he is self-deprecating of his leadership in the camps and confused by his perpetual need for affairs outside of marriage to the ever-suffering Ella, his society wife of more than 40 years.
Structurally, the book is essentially divided into three parts – pre-war, war and post-war. But at its very centre are the events that unfold in the POW death camps attached to the construction of the Thailand-Burma railway. More than 300,000 ‘slaves’ were used and disposed of by the Japanese in the construction of a railway through jungle that had been believed to be impassable. More than 12,000 Allied prisoners died in its construction.
As senior captured officers succumb to disease, Dorrigo finds himself placed in command of 700 prisoners who he “held, nursed, cajoled, begged, hoodwinked and organised into surviving, whose needs he always put before his own” living, as they were, in appalling conditions and suffering from starvation, cholera, tropical ulcers, constant, violent and, usually, senseless beatings. Near naked prisoners, wracked with fevers, sleep and food deprivation are forced to manually break through thick jungles and rocky gorges, surviving on two small balls of sour rice per day.
Based on Flanagan’s own father’s experiences as a Japanese POW, the accounts of life in the camps are desperately sad, deeply harrowing and, at times, simply beyond rational belief. It is here that Flanagan and his non-sensationalist, descriptive prose is at its very best. The Narrow Road to the Deep North at this point flows, homage that it is to Flanagan’s father and the Australian and Allied Forces who died and survived the terrible “will of the Emperor” and associated fundamentalism of the Japanese forces.
Following the end of the war, we unexpectedly follow several of the characters from the camps. In chronicling the later lives of and deaths of Japanese commanders and Korean guards, Flanagan is seeking to understand motives, responsibility and guilt from different points of view.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is an elegantly written novel and, in the third ‘section’, as it brings the story to the present day, Flanagan is looking more closely at the question of what, and who, are good and evil along with that ever-present theme – what is the nature of love. Dorrigo survived the camps thinking not of Ella, but of Amy, his uncle’s wife. Dorrigo’s reference for his behaviour 40 years later remains, he argues, his search for the love and desire he felt for Amy.
But what prevents The Narrow Road to the Deep North from being a true classic is the first ‘section’ of the book – a poor, somewhat cheesy scene-setter and romance between Dorrigo and Amy. It fails to ring true as the new military medic, based away from Ella and Melbourne society, meets a young woman in an Adelaide bookshop where he quotes poetry to her. Unable to forget this beguiling blonde, he is shocked to discover on travelling to his uncle’s hotel down the coast a few weeks later, Amy serving behind the bar and married to his uncle Keith.
A torrid but short-lived relationship develops – but he is never to forget her: and she him.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a rich meditation on life and death, love and humanity, ambitious and, as he says himself, a novel he was born to write. But what lets it down is that introductory first 100 pages.