Published by Knopf ISBN 978-0-385-35285-7
Hardcover, $26.95, 334 pages
If anyone had recommended to me a novel about Australian POWs in a WWII Japanese prison camp in Thailand, I would probably say "no thanks." But then I saw the book, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, on the bookshelf at the villa where we vacation and it kept beckoning to me. Every time I passed that bookshelf, the pull to read it felt stronger.
I finally gave in and picked up last year's Man Booker Prize winner and dove in. From the very beginning, I was in the thrall of this incredible story with writing that was beyond beautiful. Early on, the main character Dr. Dorrigo Evans has to write a forward for a book of drawings by a fellow POW.
"He looked at his forward, written, as ever, in his customary green ink, with the simple, if guilty, hope that in the abyss that lay between his dream and his failure there might be something worth reading in which the truth could be felt."That sentence from page 21 is a stunning example of the gorgeous language in this emotionally powerful novel. Another is this one:
"Dorrigo Evans hated virtue, hated virtue being admired, hated people who pretended he had virtue or pretended to virtue themselves. And the more he was accused of virtue as he grew older, the more he hated it. He did not believe in virtue. Virtue was vanity dressed up and waiting for applause."Dr. Evans becomes a celebrity in Australia because of his POW experience, and we see him as an older man looking back on his life experience. He is a famous doctor, long married to a woman whom he consistently cheats on.
As a young man waiting to go to war, he falls in love and has a passionate affair with his uncle's wife, a woman who becomes the love of his life, the woman he cannot forget. Although he loves Amy, he marries Ella, but it is Amy he keeps in his heart during his captivity and beyond.
The bulk of the story takes place in a Japanese POW prison camp. As an officer and a doctor, Dorry's rank gave him a little authority. The men in the camp were used as slave labor to build a railroad. The Japanese wanted to show the world their superiority by building a railroad from Thailand to Burma.
The camp conditions were brutal, and the Japanese soldiers running it were savage. Dorry did his best to shield the sickest prisoners from inhuman work, but he couldn't always win. We meet the men in the camp and see how strong the will to survive truly is.
The men are beaten and starved and forced to work at slave labor. They are pushed beyond human limits, and injury, disease and death are constant companions. The Japanese officers believe that the prisoners' work will glorify the Japanese empire, and their complaints about the brutal conditions confound them. They were treated similarly by their superiors, and feel the prisoners are weak-willed.
The scenes in the camp are horrific and hard to read. The men must work together to survive, yet each man is ultimately on his own as we see in the most harrowing and powerful scene. The one thing that shines through this astonishing novel is the power of human resilience, the strength of the will to survive.
At the end of the novel, we see what happened to many of the men, including the Japanese officers, which I found enlightening.
My review cannot possibly do justice to this phenomenal literary achievement, I'm not sure any review can. The only thing I can say is that to miss out on reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North would be a huge loss. This is a book that will live on in my mind for a very long time.
rating 5 of 5