Richard Flanagan’s 2014 Man Booker prize winning novel “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” is a masterwork of realistic fiction. Having read last year’s Booker prize winner, Catton’s “The Luminaries,” and a few reviews of this newest winner on Goodreads, I was prepared to be awed by intimidating prose and literary style, with character and story line appearing as merely well-crafted afterthoughts. I guess what I’m saying is, I was ready to like this novel in spite of itself. How fortunate for me that this was not at all the case.
The novel opens in the near-present with its primary narrator, the aged Dorrigo Evans, a famed surgeon and war hero, musing about his past as he leaves the scene of yet another disappointing marital affair. Through switchback-style storytelling, the reader learns that Evans grew up in impoverished rural Australia where, as a lover of classical poetry and literature, he earns first a medical degree, and then a rise in social station, via a fortuitous engagement to the daughter of a wealthy family. Stationed at a coastal base, as a young officer in the Australian military, Dorrigo begins an impassioned affair with his uncle’s young wife shortly before being shipped off to join the allied offensive in the Pacific. After the surrender of Singapore, Dorrigo, along with his unit, is sent to work as a POW on the famed Thai-Burma Death Railway. It is at this point that the tale takes on new narrative voices as they are introduced.
The story of Dorrigo and his men, and the story of their Japanese captors, unfolds with breath-taking clarity. Several times I both longed to, and could not, look away from this novel. Fans of “Matterhorn,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and “All the Light We Cannot See,” will find Flanagan’s novel more than up to the task of matching and surpassing these novels’ contribution to literary history.