Book Review – The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan

Reading Time: 2 minutes

The national war hero who is a terrible adulterer and the shameless torturer who devotes his life to being the caring and compassionate father. These are the kinds of moral juxtapositions that make Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North a characterisation masterpiece. A thought provoking mind bender of good people doing bad things, bad people doing worse and that messy grey zone that demonstrates moralities frailty, and societies influence on the human condition.

Set across a period of approximately 50 years The Narrow Road follows the life of a doctor, Dorrigo Evans, pre WW2, through imprisonment on the Thai-Burma Railway, to his return home and rise to fame as a war hero and champion for veteran causes. But Dorrigo has a secret, and a gaping hole in his being that he is unable to fill, and this brings tragedy greater than any of his PoW experiences to a life that from the outside appears to be the Australian dream.

The richness of all of the characters in this amazing novel draw you in and make you yearn for the happily ever after that never comes. Flanagan tells this tale with a weight and sadness that feels so real it is hard to believe that this is a work of fiction.

For those of us with an interest in the profession of arms, the brutality of war and its ability to make people do horrible things, and overcome abject horror is portrayed from all sides in a way that only historical fiction seems able to do. However for me the most important lesson was to pause and consider, when truly put to the test will my ethics hold? Will I make ‘good’ choices? The one thing that is sure in warfare is that nothing is sure and this complexity is a result of the messiness of human decision making.

I was given this book by a colleague with the warning ‘I hope you’re not a crier’. Pull out the tissue box, make a hot chocolate and strap in for some cathartic ugly crying. This work truly is a literary masterpiece; tragically ironic with lessons a plenty for the military practitioner or those striving to be good humans in general.

5 out of 5 soggy tissues

Nick Alexander is a current serving Combat Health Officer, member of the Military Writers Guild and Communications Director at Grounded Curiosity. You can follow him on Twitter @Nick_Alexander4.