This is an extraordinarily beautiful if desperately sad tale of the destruction through war of an entire generation of mostly, young men. Brick monuments, still photographs and marching parades have never fully ignited my imagination about the horrors of Australia's war in the Pacific with the Japanese. But in the way that Primo Levi's "If this is a Man" transported me back into the monstrous world of the Nazi concentration camps, Richard Flanagan's "The Narrow Road to the Deep North" carried me away (reluctantly) to the nightmare of the Burma-Siam railway.
From the first page it's clear that Flanagan is not going to allow his readers to take a leisurely stroll through this time in history, make some brief noises of shock and regret, and then move on with their day. Instead, his beautiful if often ponderously horrific tale demands that readers give themselves over to that time and place, minute by minute, hour by hour, just as the Australian POWs did. By the end I was left wondering whether the lucky POWs might have been the ones who did not live to remember it.
Some reviewers have expressed their disappointment with, and even dislike of the main characters in this book, particularly of Dorrigo Evans. For me, Dorrigo Evans was not a hero or a great man. He was never, I believe, intended by the author to be either of those things. For me he was a symbolic character: like his Japanese prison camp counterpart, Major Nakamura - symbolic of the weakness and fearful self-doubt that lies like a ticking time bomb within humanity; the same weakness and fear that within the juggernaut of WW2, erupted in institutionalised, organised murder and cruelty on a scale that had never been known before.
If anything, this book seems to say that greatness within humanity is not about heroism or strength, morality or selflessness, but about accidents of fortune that are carved out in each man's past. In this way, Dorrigo Evans is, I think, probably an anti-hero, thrust into a world that turns to him for leadership because of his appearance, his intelligence and his occupation as a healer, and that heroism is nothing more than a human construct to explain otherwise inexplicable horror and tragedy.
Although Dorrigo buys into the heroic myth that surrounds him for the sake of eking out an existence on a day by day basis, he never accepts it as truth. In that, he is his own harshest and most honest critic and I pitied him, but I never liked or admired him. If I had liked him this book would have been a poor imitation of what it might have been, and in the end, of what it was.
I'm now waiting for the cinema version of this book in which I fear, for the purposes of the box office, Dorrigo will be transformed from anti-hero to hero, and his unrequited love affair with Amy will be transformed from the everyday and often sad little affair that it was into the greatest love story of all time. I hope the author has a strong platform from which to control the artistic direction of his wonderful work in this next medium, but I will probably err on the side of caution and avoid the popcorn and choc tops for this one.