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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the 2015 Booker Prize for Best Novel but it just didn't grab me. It's an at times hallucinatory novel about memory, mostly centered around Australians interred at a Japanese prison camp in Siam during World War II, where they are put to work building a railroad. That sounds familiar (Bridge on the River Kwai, anyone?) but the difference is that this is not a rousing adventure story but an internalized meditation on loss.

The central character is Dorrigo Evans, a Tasmanian who goes to war. Before he leaves, while he is in training camp, he has an affair with his uncle's wife. He is a doctor responsible for many men during their imprisonment, and of course they undergo severe, horrible hardships, whether it be starvation, lack of medicine, clothing (a ruined boot is pretty much a death sentence for one prisoner) and cruel beatings. A Korean soldier, called by the Australians the Goanna, is one of the worst guards: "They wanted to rush the guards, seize the Goanna and the two others, smash their skulls in until watery grey matter dribbled out, tie them to a tree and run their bayonets in and out of their guts, drape their heads with necklaces of their blue and red intestines while they were still alive so the guards might know a small measure of their hate."

The prison camp is very vivid, but that's not the whole book. Evans looks back as an old man, and there are many quotes about time and memory: "A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else," or "As the years passed,  he found he was haunted only by the way he was haunted by so little of it." Evans survives, but his mistress thought him dead. He lives a complacent life with his the woman he was engaged to before the war. The book also follows the prison commandant, who becomes a successful Japanese businessman after eluding capture for war crimes (the Goanna is hung). He defends his actions and those of the Japanese, until he learns that Japanese doctors did do vivisections on U.S. GIs.

I found it hard to be motivated onto the next chapter or even page of this book. It felt like a duty to read. Some of the prose was quite lovely but the characters weren't interesting to me and I've seen and read so much about World War II prison camps lately that perhaps this wasn't the best time to read it. I can't recommend this book.

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