The story casts its roving eye on 77-year-old Dr. Dorrigo Evans, a celebrated war hero whose life has been an unsatisfying string of sterile affairs and public honors. He loved a woman once, but tragedy intervened, and since then each new award and commendation only makes Dorrigo feel undeserving and fraudulent … For many pages, the novel shimmers over the decades of Dorrigo’s life, only flashing on the horrors of war and the ghosts who haunt him. But soon enough, that unspeakable period comes into focus in a series of blistering episodes you will never get out of your mind … The novel doesn’t exonerate these war criminals, but it forces us to admit that history conspired to place them in a situation where cruelty would thrive, where the natural responses of human kindness and sympathy were short-circuited.
Flanagan’s prose in Narrow Road has often been described as ‘unflinching,’ and there’s certainly no shortage of violence in the passages about the prison camp, but he can be unflinching about desire, too. What strikes me most is the way Flanagan writes about the vivid and terrifying experience of falling in love … Flanagan’s tender, direct way of writing about the body is reminiscent of D. H. Lawrence, and some have found this side of his work a little embarrassing, even cheesy, but I’m moved by Flanagan’s sentimental men, known in the beginning as numbers and by the end revealed to possess secret wells of sentiment. In Narrow Road, Dorrigo is celebrated for his machismo and for being a paragon of his gender: brave, strong, stoic. Australians traditionally value hyper-masculine men who don’t expose their vulnerabilities, and Flanagan is deliberately writing against type.
Flanagan has done something difficult here, creating a character who is at once vivid and shadowy. In his long postwar life, Dorrigo will see his own moments of heroism as if performed by someone else. He fulfills his duty while remaining separate from it, and as a husband and father is most often an absent presence … Flanagan manages these shifts in time and perspective with extraordinary skill. They’re never confusing but they are dizzying, and demand the reader’s full attention in a way that reminds me of Conrad. I suspect that on rereading, this magnificent novel will seem even more intricate, more carefully and beautifully constructed.
Although Narrow Road turns out to be a deeply flawed novel, the chapters set in an Australian prisoner of war railway camp demonstrate his ability...to communicate both the abominations that men are capable of inflicting upon one another, and the resilience many display in the face of utter misery … Dorrigo’s memories of Amy help get him through his years as a prisoner, and Mr. Flanagan clearly wants their love or lust for each other to serve as a counterpoint to the death and cruelty of war...This novel would have been far more powerful and coherent if Amy were excised from the story. It is the story of Dorrigo, as one man among many P.O.W.’s in the Asian jungle, that is the beating heart of this book: an excruciating, terrifying, life-altering story that is an indelible fictional testament to the prisoners there.
This novel is truly an entitled thing: it demands both action and high-value misty contemplation or ‘memory’. It is a universal solvent, or claims to be. You want love, it says; I got love! You want death? I got it. All the kinds. Any amount. It is all bite, and no chew … In construction, the book is the half-hearted retrospective of a dying old man (the life flashing before the eyes – think of something like Hermann Broch’s Death of Virgil) that forsakes its tether for the more leisurely freedom of an impersonal series of chronological flashbacks; only to leave that in turn for an account of other characters in their own personal circumstances, in Australia, in Japan, in Korea, of which Dorrigo Evans can have known little or nothing at all. The final effect is of an unplanned collage, a rather sticky collage.
In his youth before the war, Dorrigo fell desperately in love with young Amy Mulvaney, the wife of his uncle Keith. In describing their all-consuming affair, Flanagan seems at times to have turned the pen over to his besotted hero. Memories of their superlative passion provide a respite for the reader in the horrors that are to come, as they do for Dorrigo himself … There are passages toward the middle of Flanagan’s book that rival Dante in their unrelenting depictions of nightmarish atrocity and degradation and of staggering futility. It is in describing this crucible of suffering that Flanagan’s own poetic mastery is most keenly felt and appreciated. One could not wish a more capable Virgil to guide our steps through this hell.
Flanagan has written a sort of Australian War and Peace, centered on the extraordinary Dorrigo Evans, a heroic yet philandering doctor … Flanagan's descriptions of the daily round of increased labor, diminishing food and nightmarish hygiene make for difficult reading. The set-pieces showing off Japanese cruelty seem almost beyond credulity, as when one Japanese officer describes in great detail how an older officer instructed him in the proper way to behead prisoners, or when we hear eyewitness testimony about the experimental live dissection of a prisoner of war, or the stark physical descriptions of prisoners in various states of sickness and dying. All this makes for a portrait of war in the Pacific that could have been rendered by Hieronymus Bosch.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is extraordinarily ambitious. It is perhaps too ambitious, although ambition is not a sin in my book. There are moments of great beauty but also moments of great bathos … The prisoners have to walk seven miles each way through the jungle before they start work, often day and night. Towards the end some are crawling or dying. But still they are beaten. It is appallingly graphic, and very hard to read, page after page ... This is a heroic book marred by its determination to demonstrate high seriousness, which often collapses into pop philosophy. But for all its overstriving, this is a book you should read. It is unquestionably a work of astonishing energy and Richard Flanagan is unquestionably highly talented.
It is, at once, a love story and an immersion into an awful piece of history … Dorrigo survives the death camp only to suffer, not only survivor’s guilt, but also the nagging embarrassment of his resulting celebrity. Returning to civilian life, he marries his pre-ordained fiance; however, because of his constant skirt chasing, he finds only emptiness and unavoidable disappointment … It is not so much a story, although the story is enthralling, as a novel of character, because, ultimately, it does what the best fiction does best, crafts the biggest questions of life — love, purpose, responsibility, loss — into meaningful prose that takes us down a road and changes us.
The scenes of Australian POWs held by the Japanese have power and depth, as do the postwar transformations of soldiers on both sides. But the novel’s deep flaw is a pivotal plot development that aims at the literary heights of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary but sounds too often like a swoon-worthy bodice ripper … When the leads are offstage, the novel approaches greatness in its inquiry into what it means to be a good person. But there’s too much ‘her body was a poem beyond memorising’ for the novel to fulfill its considerable ambition.
...a supple meditation on memory, trauma, and empathy that is also a sublime war novel … It is Dorrigo’s Japanese adversary, Major Nakamura, Flanagan’s most conflicted and fully realized character, whose view of the war—and struggles with the Emperor’s will and his own postwar fate—comes to overshadow Dorrigo’s story, especially in the novel’s bracing second half.