Here's where I own up to an embarrassing lack in my knowledge of the world and publicly admit that prior to reading this book, I had no idea where the island of Tasmania is located. I had a recollection of a whirling, hyperactive cartoon character from my childhood and vague notions that the critter hailed from somewhere in Africa. Right? When in doubt, guess Africa.
Some days I feel like I fulfill all the Clueless American stereotypes.
Tasmania, it turns out, is an island state off the southern coast of Australia. It's where novelist Richard Flanagan lives, and it's where some significant sections of The Narrow Road to the Deep North take place. (I paused in my reading to do a little research about Tasmania's history and found myself fascinated with all the other stories the island must hold beyond the tiny sliver Flanagan reveals. I suspect my future reading will be guided by this newfound interest.)
With basic information acquired, I was able to turn my focus to the meat of this novel, which concerns a Japanese-controlled POW camp for Australian soldiers during the second World War. Originally from Tasmania, Dorrigo Evans is a doctor tasked with treating the wounded, sick, and dying prisoners, used ruthlessly by their Japanese captors to build the Thai-Burma railway. To say the conditions are horrendous is a massive understatement. I was shocked when, after finishing the novel, I read back over the publisher's blurb and realized the book only details one day in the life of the camp. One day. The magnitude of the prisoners' suffering, the total loss of dignity, the single-minded brutality of the guards and military leadership—some parts of the book are very hard to read. And I had read about only a single day out of many other excruciating days.
Lest you think this book is a meaningless recitation of cruelty, I should point out that though Flanagan uses the day in the camp as an axis around which the rest of the story spins, he explores far and wide beyond that day. Figuring heavily is an affair Dorrigo had with his uncle's wife Amy prior to the war. The narrative floats back and forth through time, showing us how Dorrigo tries to make sense of two unexplainable yet indelible events in his life: the hellish experience in the camp, and the wrenching loss of the only woman he ever truly loved.
Also included are sections that follow the Japanese officers in charge of the POWs, which provide insight into their states of mind both during and after the war. They seem to struggle as much as Dorrigo and the surviving prisoners do to come to terms with all that happened and their own responsibility for it. Whether or not any of the characters reach a satisfying conclusion is probably best left up to each reader to decide. Personally, I'm not convinced much sense can be made of the atrocities of war, but the book is so densely layered, I'm sure Flanagan will have me turning the question over in my head for some time.
Note: The Narrow Road to the Deep North won this year's Man Booker Prize, which is how it popped up on my radar. I don't necessarily think every award-winning book is worth reading, but this one is deserving of both the honor and a wide readership. You can find a historical listing of Man Booker winners here.