War is an absurdity writ large and its tragedy is both collective and singular. The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the latest novel from Richard Flanagan, is one part war story, one part love story, and one part the story of a man’s search for himself. Shifting assuredly between decades and locales, characters and points of view, Flanagan weaves a mesmerizing tale of barbarity and courage, love and longing, transgression,and redemption.
The year is 1942 and the Japanese Imperial Army has strategic designs on the British stronghold in India, but Japan’s ability to extend its dominance of Southeast Asia is hampered by overstretched naval supply lines. Desperate for an overland route, the Japanese high command decides to go all in and build a rail line from Thailand to Burma—an idea the British had considered and rejected in the late 1880’s as practically impossible. But the Japanese have something the British lacked: a ready supply of slave labor in the form of British, Dutch, and Australian prisoners of war, along with thousands of subjugated Asians. Tens of thousands of POW’s are set to work building The Line, a 260-mile route through murderous terrain. Hacking through teak rain forest, blasting through solid rock, and building bridges across ravines is bone breaking, spirit crushing labor; the climate is a generous host for tropical diseases; and when it comes to tools, the Japanese supply the bare minimum.
The novel’s central protagonist is Dorrigo Evans, a surgeon and ranking officer of an Australian contingent of POW’s, who feels personally responsible for the welfare of the men under his command. Pitted against the heat, rain, mud, malnutrition, malaria, physical abuse, cholera, and tropical ulcers, Evans is reduced to largely futile attempts to make life in the prison camp and on The Line less of a living curse. Medicine is scarce, anesthetic home made. Woe to the prisoner who has the misfortune to succumb to illness or disease. On The Line, death’s long shadow stalks every man.
Under intense pressure from Tokyo to complete the railway in the shortest possible time, the Japanese overseers drive the prisoners mercilessly, hour after hour, day after day. The camp commandant, Major Nakamura, is as much a prisoner of The Line as Dorrigo Evans and his men, and Richard Flanagan brilliantly juxtaposes this complex relationship. For different reasons, Nakamura and Dorrigo are defined and haunted by their experiences on The Line. Though both men survive the war and return home to resume their civilian lives, each bears physical scars and psychic wounds, and the unbearable burden of causing or condemning men to death.