The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Chatto, £16.99)

NarrowRoadtotheNorthA couple of years before my mother died she sent me a photograph of herself, arm in arm with a man I’d never seen before. It was not a good photo – an old Box Brownie I imagine – which made the contrast between her own normally pale face and the near-black, but Caucasian-looking, man startling. I asked her about it but she said she did not want to say, but would I keep the photograph for her sake? In fact I knew the story. The man was someone she’d gone out with during the war who’d become a POW in Burma. He arrived back burnt black by the sun. His experience haunted him which led, eventually, to the relationship foundering. There’s more of course, but there’s no place for it here, other than to say the last part of Booker-prize winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North covers the lives of a group of Australians who survived working “on the Line” in Burma and there were similar stories. Of men who were broken by the experience, men who never mentioned it again and some, like the surgeon Doriggo Evans who achieved fame because of his heroism and leadership. He kept at least some of his men alive when not one of them was fit enough to work and hundreds were dying of hunger, dysentery, cholera, beri beri and overwork imposed on them by their captors.

It was the last part of the book which worked best for this reader, not just for personal reasons, but in reading the stories of survivors after the narrative. This included the experiences of three of the worst Japanese and Korean soldiers. Was it a surprise that the most senior officer segued into a cushy government job after the war, the second most senior went on the run and was not caught and the junior (the Korean) was executed? Not really. But all the stories of the survivors were interesting, and in one case hilarious when two ex-POWs smashed the window of a fish and chip shop to rescue live fish in a tank waiting their turn, yet went back the next day to pay for the damage. They found that the Greek owner of the shop had lost his son in the war so they sat all night eating and drinking with him, and he refused any payment for the damage they had done to his shop.

It took a long time to get to these stories but the earlier descriptions of the lives and deaths of the other prisoners will stay with me for years. Please don’t read this book before going to bed – you will not sleep well. The author’s father was a survivor of the Burma railway and one assumes accuracy in the fiction. Nor will it be easy to read haiku again – the cruellest of the Japanese recited haiku. The title is taken from the best known work of the Japanese poet Basho.

Other parts of the book were less convincing. Doriggo Evans was indeed a hero and was seen as such by his charges even when he had to pick 100 of them to go on a march that he knew few would survive yet before the war and afterwards, despite his marriage, he slept with every woman he could, without feeling. Or possibly in search of feeling, which he was only able to achieve in his illicit affair with his uncle’s much younger wife. These parts of the book did not work for me, not for any moralistic reason, simply because they did not work – and the sex scenes were just about bad enough for the Bad Sex Award.

Ross Bradshaw

 

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