I picked up Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North after it was named the winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. I typically don't go for books that deal with war and POWs in intense detail, but I decided to put all of my nerves and squeamishness aside and dive right in.
The Situation: Dorrigo Evans grows up to be an Australian doctor in the time around World War II. Before becoming a soldier, and later a prisoner of war in Thailand, Dorrigo meets Ella, and it is assumed that they will someday be married. He loves Ella tremendously, but that love soon pales in comparison to how he feels about Amy. It is only after an initial encounter with Amy in a bookstore that he learns that she is actually the much younger wife of the uncle he had traveled to visit. But despite this, the two end up falling in love anyway despite that complications that can come from it, and the other two people they are each supposed to be in love with.
The Problem: While serving in WWII, Dorrigo ends up in a POW camp in Thailand under the Japanese. While he may be put into a leadership position and therefore spared some of the heavier work, his responsibilities as a leader and a doctor still take their toll. He does his best to take care of the sick and injured, while also placing them on light duty and keeping them from the most grueling work. But in the end, his attempts to save those under him prove useless under the harsh command of the Japanese. Plus, it is while he is captured that Amy will learn of his death, even though the report is false. And even after enduring the awful conditions of the POW camp, and witnessing the needless death of those around and under him, Dorrigo will return to a woman he no longer loves, mostly because his heart is still tied to his uncle's wife.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical novel set mostly in the early 1940s during WWII. There is a brief glimpse into Dorrigo's early life, and later chapters do explore the life he made for himself after the war is over. A lot of the novel is also told from the point of view of several of the soldiers that were under Dorrigo while in the POW camp, some of whom will survive to return home, while others will not. The reader even gets some perspective from some of the Japanese and Korean soldiers who were responsible for the harsh conditions the Australian soldiers endured while they were captured. Many of the Japanese and Koreans will be brought to justice later as war criminals, while others, much like the Australians, will go on to live normal lives and die normal deaths. Ultimately, this book is a love story, but it talks about war and survival more than anything else.
My Verdict: This
is not really the type of book I usually pick up. I am always somewhat
wary of historical fiction because there is only a certain type I truly
enjoy, and the ones that center on war do not fall within that category.
With that being said, I enjoyed this book much more than I thought I
would. And it is very much about war, and about the extremely awful
situations that POWs during WWII had to endure. Some of the content is
ridiculously graphic and hard to read, but I still enjoyed the book and
would recommend it to others. And it didn't feel like the book was
graphic just for the sake of being graphic...more like it was graphic
for the sake of just being real and honest. I can see why it won the Man Booker Prize and recommend it even to those who may not gravitate towards stories about war and death.
Favorite Moment: When Dorrigo and Amy see each other years later, but the encounter doesn't go quite as many readers would imagine it would.
Favorite Character: Darky Gardiner is one of the soldiers under Dorrigo's command in the POW camp. He isn't the smartest of strongest, or even the most well-liked soldier in the bunch, but he seems to be the most compassionate and the one most able to keep his spirits up despite the horrible situation he is stuck in.
Recommended Reading: I would recommend A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, a novel about two doctors risking their lives to save a little girl, set during the conflict in Chechnya.