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Is this history more important than ANZAC Day?

By Sussan Ley - posted Wednesday, 12 February 2014

And Nakamura could see that, in this sacrifice too, there was no other way for the Emperor's wishes to be realised. What was a prisoner of war anyway? Less than a man, just materiel to be used to make the railways, like the teak sleepers and steel rails and dog spikes

I've always been an admirer of Richard Flanagan's work so when I saw his latest book while dashing through T2 Sydney airport on my last flight before the Christmas break I grabbed it, knowing that here was one volume that would not join the growing pile I start but never finish.

About this time, Flanagan was interviewed in a weekend magazine and I learned the work was inspired by his father's POW experience and had been many years in the making. Indeed his words hang together in perfect, truthful prose - the tools of a master craftsman - and the result is extraordinary.


Narrow Roadis a great yarn and much more besides. It brings a vital piece of our history to life in a spectacular and unforgettable way. My own view is that the story of the Thai Burma Railway and the 60 000 Allied prisoners who died building it should feature in history lessons as much, if not more than Gallipoli.

The central character, Dorrigo Evans, is a colonel and doctor in a prisoner of war camp on the so called 'Death Railway'. The novel moves between the daily atrocities experienced by Evans and his men and the love story that straddles his life.

Many books and films have dealt with the cruelty and inhumanity shown by an occupying force to its prisoners. Some readers, learning of the subject matter, might think 'another harrowing POW tale… maybe give it a miss?' Please don't.

Yes, there are passages of unerring horror – the death of a man beaten almost to the end who is still proud enough to try to make it to the latrines but falls to drown in a sea of filth is one such example – however we feel, not just revulsion and distress but a certain detached insight.

We are witnesses, not participants, and it is by witnessing that we see and sense all of the forces at work in the souls of the men, their captors and especially Evans.

One of the strengths of the narrative is its sheer lack of judgment. Whether describing Evans' desperate operation to amputate a progressively gangrenous leg, not realising his patient had died, or the Korean guard who in the post war trials bears his sentence to death 'like an animal … without understanding but with a dull awareness', Flanagan's descriptions are dispassionate. Indignation, distress, sadness are for the reader to feel, rather than the words to express.


A tender contrast to the savagery of the landscape and story, is the love that captures Evans. He had an affair with his uncle's younger wife, Amy, before the war and when posted, promised to come back to her. But her house burns down and in the only lie his wife Ella ever tells him, Evans believes Amy perished in the blaze.

In a passage of awful pathos near the end of the book, they pass each other on the Harbour Bridge. He had thought her dead but here she is walking towards him.

'Time had made her more, not less beautiful. As though, rather than taking, age had simply revealed who she really was'.

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This is a review of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Random House, 2013)

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About the Author

Sussan Ley is the Liberal Federal Member for Farrer

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