The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Pretentious, misogynistic and (almost) universally loved.
I have a policy of not reading reviews of a book until I’ve written my own.
It was hard, however, to avoid finding out what the rest of the world thought of The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The cover is teeming with rhapsodic reviews from The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post and their ilk. The book’s Goodreads rating is 4.01, which is almost unheard of. Oh, and it won the Man Booker Prize.
As soon as I finish writing this, I’m going to go back and read all those other reviews in detail, and try to understand why everyone apart from me loved this book. Because I truly, madly, deeply loathed it.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is both a romance and a WWII novel. Dorrigo Evans, a young Australian surgeon, meets and falls in love with his uncle Keith’s wife, Amy. Despite the fact that Dorrigo himself is planning to marry another woman, Ella, he begins an affair with Amy.
When he leaves for the war, he promises Amy that he’ll marry her on his return. He ends up in a Japanese POW camp, where the prisoners are forced to work on constructing the Thai–Burma railway. While in the camp, he receives a letter that changes the course of his life (although we don’t find out exactly what the letter says until the end of the book).
It sounds like a compelling plot, but it just isn’t, mainly because we feel nothing for any of the characters, least of all Dorrigo. I’m not saying the main character of a book has to be likeable. But I do think he or she has to seem human, and should change or grow in some way over the course of the novel.
From beginning to end, Dorrigo is selfish, cruel and arrogant. Yet he’s somehow admired and adored by everyone. Even his serial infidelity, we’re led to believe, is a mark of his greatness:
[H]e understood that the same fearlessness, the same refusal to accept convention, the same delight in games and his same hopeless hunger to see how far he might push a situation that had driven him in the camps to help others had also driven him into the arms of Lynette Maison, the wife of a close colleague …
His “romance” with Amy is wholly unromantic, and not just because it’s a betrayal of her husband and his wife-to-be. He looks at her with a misogynist’s mixture of obsession and hatred. When he first sees her, she is talking with a group of male friends:
They were nothing more than her ornaments, and he despised them for being in thrall to something that would so obviously never be theirs. He disliked her power to turn men into what he regarded as little more than slavering dogs, and he rather disliked her in consequence.
After this first meeting, he becomes fixated on her:
He felt a swirling of hatred and lust for Keith’s wife. He wanted to seize her body. He wanted to never see her again. He felt a contempt and strange distance, he felt a complicity …
Every woman in his life inspires some version of this scorn in him. Lynette, mentioned above, “prattles on” about her superficial job while Dorrigo broods on his important, manly war memories. Ella, his future wife, is damned with faint praise, seen only in terms of what she can do for Dorrigo:
If her talk was full of commonplaces learnt as if by rote and repeated so determinedly that he really wasn’t sure what she thought, he nevertheless found her kind and devoted.
I’d like to give Richard Flanagan the benefit of the doubt and say it’s Dorrigo, not the author, who looks at women this way. But the same attitude crops up again and again with other characters. Major Nakamura, a Japanese officer, describes his wife’s “lazy smile” as “both erotic and irritating”. He only appreciates her when she nurses him through an illness:
And through this ordeal he came to recognise what an extraordinary woman Ikuko was. For she devoted herself to his care, was unfailingly light and pleasant, and seemed not to mind his dry and reeking body.
Flanagan’s writing itself is pretentious and, quite frankly, boring. It’s littered with “profundities” that don’t actually mean anything:
Dorrigo Evans felt as if some terrible vibration was shaking the earth, and that all their beings could not help but drum with it. And that ominous drumming was the truth of this life.
The way the characters speak is unlike any conversation that has ever taken place in real life. No one actually asks a complete stranger something like, “Do you believe in love?”
And their thoughts are equally “writerly” and unbelievable:
My disgraceful, wicked heart, thought Amy, is braver than the world.
A huge chunk of the book is taken up with describing the horrors of the POW camp. (I swear there are three separate descriptions of a prisoner’s anus “protruding” because he is so skeletal and racked with dysentery.)
In any other book, these scenes would have been heartbreaking to read, but here they left me cold. Spending so much time in the company of Dorrigo Evans, I think, made me as unfeeling and inhuman as he is.