Chatto & Windus £16.99

The Narrow Road To The Deep North By Richard Flanagan - book review

 

The 415km railway that was built from 1942 to 1943 during the Second World War between the then Siam (now Thailand) and Burma, is also known as the “Death Railway”. This monicker is derived from the fact that the workers who built it for the then Japanese empire were forced into the labour, and comprised around 250,000 Asian workers and 61,000 Allied prisoners of war, of whom roughly 90,000 Asians and 16,000 prisoners died.

The high death rate was the result of the appalling conditions that workers slaved under, including perpetual near starvation, merciless beatings, ruthless hours, and the many tropical illnesses.

Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker longlisted novel is based partly on the experiences of his father, who was one of those prisoners of war. He survived the experience but saw about a third of his colleagues die.

The novel focuses on a Tasmanian surgeon called Dorrigo Evans, who was the commanding officer of a group of 1,000 Australian and Tasmanian prisoners of war captured by the Japanese and forced to work on the railway. The story flits chronologically between Dorrigo’s childhood, his life before conscription – where he meets a society girl he later marries – his encounter with another woman who will haunt him for the rest of his life; his time in the army, and his subsequent life.

We find out quickly that Dorrigo survived the war, and that in his old age, he receives adulation for his compassionate heroism towards his men during the arduous time of the railway construction. We also know that Dorrigo doesn’t feel he deserves this praise. Part of this may be survivor guilt, the rest because he knows that his private life is flawed: he is a womaniser. It’s apparent to the reader that he sleeps with other women to escape both the stifling duty of his marriage and the memory of the only woman he ever truly loved. To his credit, Flanagan doesn’t make a caricature of Dorrigo’s wife: she may be dull but she has a good heart.

The sections in the war, and especially in the prisoner of war camp, are devastating. Flanagan vividly describes the fate of the men, ravaged by starvation, tropical ulcers which eat away their flesh to the bone, malaria and cholera. The fortitude of the prisoners is remarkable: most find strength from supporting each other.

The scenes from the point of view of some of the prisoners’ tormenters after the war is sobering. Some of the most brutal escape justice. There is one particularly chilling sadist who killed scores of people purely for pleasure, and he never faces punishment. There are insights into the hierarchy of the Japanese army, in which Koreans were seen as lowly. One section is hard to read because of its graphic description of the vivisection of live prisoners practised by some of the Japanese.

Sadly, Flanagan’s father died the day this book was finished. But he would, no doubt, have been as proud of it as his son was of him.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy