‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Richard Flanagan – The Monthly Book

October 2013

Welcome to the Monthly Book.

Each month Ramona Koval chooses a book, provides reading notes and posts a video interview.


Heroism, goodness, mateship, war, enmity, class, memory, self-delusion, passion, guilt, honour and loyalty – these are just some of the themes in this month’s Monthly Book, Richard Flanagan’s latest novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I’ve chosen this book for you as it brings to life a period in Australian history that has not been well expressed in novelistic form, although there have been noted war memoirs from survivors of the Japanese Imperial Army’s prisoner-of-war camps that were tasked to build the Thai–Burma railway.

The story takes us on a round trip: from rural Tasmania in the years leading up to World War Two, to the theatres of war in the Middle East and on the Thai–Burma railway, and back to postwar Australia. We follow Dorrigo Evans as he becomes a student surgeon, gets engaged to the daughter of Melbourne toffs and experiences a passionate affair that haunts him, through to watching his selfless service to other POWs in the Japanese camp, and then his life as a celebrated hero in back home.

Past and present sit together in this complex structure, in the way they do in our own minds, as Dorrigo’s story unfolds influenced by the haikus of the great Japanese writer Basho and the poetry of Paul Celan.

Dedicated to “prisoner san byaku san ju go (335)”, the identification number of Richard Flanagan’s father, the late Archie Flanagan, who died aged 98 earlier this year, the novel seems to reflect a son’s struggle to make sense of the lives of men who fought a war and managed to survive terrible conditions. How did they make it? And how did they negotiate life afterwards, in the face of most people’s inability to understand what they had seen and the tests they had faced? And what of the heroism of someone like Dorrigo Evans, whose story in the camp has parallels with that of Edward “Weary” Dunlop? What makes a leader of men in their darkest hours? And can the hero stand up and be proud if there are other guilty secrets in his past to face? Is heroism necessarily born of recklessness – the same recklessness that can drive a man in fits of passion?

Flanagan has broken open the silence of what happened in that POW camp to the pages of a novel told from many points of view, including those who held the Australian prisoners captive. He writes of deprivations, cruelty, hunger, mud and sickness with clarity and poetry.

Flanagan has from the publication of his first novel, Death of a River Guide, made a name for himself as a writer of great breadth and depth in terms of both his literary achievements and political engagements. The Sound of One Hand Clapping followed River Guide and then came his internationally lauded Gould’s Book of Fish. His novel The Unknown Terrorist was a thriller set in a modern-day Australian dystopia, and his next book, Wanting, imagined the parallel lives of the novelist Charles Dickens and Mathinna, an Aboriginal orphan adopted by the Colonial Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, Sir John Franklin, and his wife, Lady Jane Franklin. He co-wrote Baz Luhrmann’s film Australia, and won the Victorian Premier’s Award for journalism for his long essay on the relationship between Gunns, the company behind a proposed Tamar Valley pulp mill, Tasmania’s Labor government and the devastation of the island’s forests.

Watch the interview

Read the transcript