Harrowing, bleak and elegiac in turns, this Booker Prize winning novel of love and war is imbued with a fatalism that strangely resonates in this time of the coronavirus pandemic.
“As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.”
Those words, spoken by Gloucester in King Lear, seem as appropriate today, with hundreds of thousands dying of the coronavirus, as in the Second World War, the setting for much of this novel.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North depicts the suffering and brutality inflicted on Australian prisoners of war (POWs) by their Japanese captors who forced them to build the infamous Death Railway though the jungle from Thailand to Burma.
The author, Richard Flanagan, used his father’s experiences as a POW on the Death Railway to tell the story. The brutalities and sufferings are so unbearable I had to skip entire pages. This is the most gut-wrenching book I have ever read.
But it is also a tragic love story.
Dorrigo Evans, a poor boy who wins a scholarship and becomes a doctor, falls in love with his uncle’s wife, Amy. He doesn’t know she is his aunt when they first meet in an Adelaide bookshop. At the time, he is thinking of marrying Ella, a teacher from a well-connected family in Melbourne. But when he meets Amy, they are instantly drawn to each other.
She pinched the top of her blouse with her thumb and forefinger, tugging it upwards while all the while looking at him with eyes that seemed to say she’d really like it tugged downwards.
Dorrigo and Amy discover they are related only when they meet again, this time at the Adelaide hotel where his uncle works as a publican. But that doesn’t prevent their lovemaking.
They meet on a tryst, after which he is sent off to war.
They lose touch. Dorrigo is dead, his uncle tells his aunt about a year later. Grief-stricken, Amy crumples to the floor after her husband goes to another room to smoke his pipe. Shortly after, an explosion rips through the hotel, bringing it down. The uncle is killed in the blast. His wife is also suspected dead.
Dorrigo, who gets the news long later, has a harrowing war.
He is taken prisoner by the Japanese and, following the deaths of more senior officers, becomes the commanding officer of the Australian POWs at the camp. As a doctor, he tries to save the sick and the wounded, but the lack of medical supplies causes terrible suffering. For example, he has to operate with saws and without anaesthesia.
Yet, after the war, he is celebrated as a hero, a good leader of men for trying to save their lives.
He, however, feels trapped from the moment he lands in Sydney and is greeted by Ella. She has been waiting for him all these years, but he feels dejected, duty-bound to marry her, having proposed to her years ago. He can’t even recall her name at first. And then…
He recalled now that he had proposed to her in 1941 as a way of kissing her breasts.
They marry, have children; he enjoys success as a surgeon; but, unable to love her, he has affairs with other women.
Ella is beautiful and loyal, but she bores him. The author depicts her hurt.
Ella could not fathom living without loving. She had been loved by her parents and loved them deeply in return. Her love was simply what she was, looking for objects to pour itself out upon…If she hoped for the same love from Dorrigo, and if she was disappointed in her hope, she did not feel its absence as a reason not to love him. The problem was that she did. Her love was without reason and would never yield to reason. Though it longed for requital, her love in the end did not demand it.
But when he was away at night, she would lie awake, unable to sleep. And she would think of him and her and feel the most overwhelming sadness. She may have been a trusting woman but she was very far from a stupid one. She echoed his words and repeated his opinions not because she was without thoughts of her own, but because her nature was one that wished to live through others. Without love, what was the world? Just objects, things, light, darkness.
Nakamura, the Japanese commandant of the POW camp, meanwhile, finds love when he returns to Japan, escapes punishment and marries a nurse named Ikuko. He eventually dies of throat cancer, but not before he finds happiness in the love and devotion of his caring wife.
He admired her practical nature, but what he loved was simply her presence and touch. After a time he would do anything to have her sit next to him and gently run the backs of her fingers down the side of his face. And though she thought that doing nothing — as she put it — was a complete waste of her time, that same nothing was the most important thing in Nakamura’s life. Then he felt no fear, his pain was again for a short time bearable, and he wondered how he could have been oblivious to his wife’s goodness for so long.
Cynical, womanising Dorrigo eventually discovers Amy is alive. He sees her one day while walking along a bridge in Sydney decades after the war.
He stopped in the middle of the bridge. A light easterly was blowing a cooling sea breeze in, and he gazed at the war far below, coughing white and blue waves… It was when he drew himself up from the side rail and resumed walking that he first glimpsed her in the distance…
She was wearing fashionable sunglasses and a sleeveless dark blue dress with a white band around the hips. She had two children with her, small girls, each holding one of her hands…
He had thought her dead, but here she was, walking towards him, noticeably older, though to him time had made her more, not less, beautiful. As though, rather than taking, age had simply revealed who she was.
The abyss of years — with their historic wars, their celebrated inventions, their innumerable horrors and miraculous wonders — had, he realised, all been nothing. The bomb, the Cold War, Cuba and transistor radios had no power over her swagger, her imperfect ways, her breasts longing for liberation and her eyes rightfully hidden…
Would he stop or would he walk on by? Would he cry out or would he say nothing? He had to decide…
She was drawing nearer… He was close enough now to see the small mole that defined her upper lip. Now he did not think she was as beautiful as ever, or that she was beautiful at all. Only that he wanted her… Had she seen him? He would call out to her…
As he went to say something, he realised they had walked past each other without a word.
He eventually turns around to speak to her, but by then she is gone. And the realisation hits him:
He had thought her dead. But now he finally understood: it was she who had lived and he who had died.
Amy had known Dorrigo was alive but had made no attempt to contact him, hurt that he had not sought her out. She did not know he thought she was dead.
The two little girls he saw with her were her nieces, her sister’s daughters. She was living with her sister and suffering from cancer. The doctor gave her only one more year to live.
Her dreams were long ago spent.
Now she sought pleasure in sunsets, in her friends, few but loved by her, in the charms of the city, the warmth of early morning, the smell of bitumen and buildings after wild rain, the daily summer carnival of beaches, the view of it from the bridge of a summer afternoon, the strangers she sometimes met, spoiling her nieces, the pleasant solitude of memory that the evening of a summer’s day allowed. Sometimes she felt happy.
Occasionally, she remembered a room by the sea and the moon and him, the green hand of a clock floating in the darkness and the sound of waves crashing, and a feeling unlike anything she had known before or ever knew again.
She would not contact him. He had his life, she had hers, the merge was impossible to dream. And what we cannot dream we can never do.
In eighteen months — six more than she had been given — she would be buried in a suburban cemetery, an unremarkable lot amidst acres of similarly unremarkable graves. No one would ever see her again, and after a time her nieces’ memories would fade and then, like them also, be finally no more. All that would remain, luminous in the long night of the earth, would be a pearl necklace with which she had asked to be buried.
The pearl necklace was a gift from Dorrigo. He would die after being hit by a car full of drunken teenagers. He would spend three days dreaming of Amy and his men and a letter from Ella as he lay dying in a hospital.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2014, is an unusual novel. Forbiddingly harrowing and bleak, jumping back and forth in time, it is, nevertheless, deeply moving, too, a love story where the lovers are not lucky in love.