When, on 25 October 1943, steam locomotive C 5631 travels the length of the completed Death Railway – the first train to do so – towing its three carriages of Japanese and Thai dignitaries, it will be past endless beds of human bones that will include the remains of one in three of those Australians.
Book Number 4 is The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Australian writer Richard Flanagan.
It revolves around Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor who achieves war hero status for the part he played in a POW camp in Siam during the 1943 construction of the ‘Death Railway’ – a 415km railway stretching from Thailand to Burma.
The conditions of those building this railway, ordered by the Emperor of Japan, are quite simply, hell on earth. The POWs are starved and beaten and forced to work day and night. They’re dressed in nothing but filthy rags tied around their waists, and a pair of boots can literally mean the difference between life and death to them. Cholera sweeps through the camp, taking almost everyone it touches and the filth and squalor, assisted by the monsoon season, lead to ulcers, ringworm, malaria, dysentery and countless other diseases.
The middle section of the novel focuses on the events that take place over the space of a couple of days during the ‘Speedo’ – a period of time in which POWs were forced to work 16-hour days to construct the railway as quickly as possible. From a variety of perspectives, we see what daily life was like as a POW. We also get a glimpse into the mind of one of the Japanese officers and his motivations and beliefs.
Dorrigo Evans shines in this particular section. Refusing to be treated as anything less than an equal, he fights for his men in every way he can. Whether it’s negotiating over the number of men needed to work on a detail or operating on a man whose chance of survival is slim, he is the very definition of a hero, a leader, a man that can be looked up to. Part of this is construct – when offered a steak, he orders that it be taken to the sick, knowing that this story will be told and become part of his legend. But this story, he knows, is a necessity to the men he leads, and it is also a necessity to him, to help him continue the work he’s doing.
I cannot fault the middle section of this novel at all. It’s not comfortable reading but it gives an insight into a brutal period of history that deserves to be remembered. After finishing the novel, I found out that Richard Flanagan’s own father was one of the POWs who worked on the Death Railway, and this, perhaps, is one of the reasons why this particular section is so strong.
The rest of the novel, especially in comparison to this, is more miss than hit for me. It actually reminds me a lot of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, which I only read for the first time last year. Birdsong was a book that I’d looked forward to reading for years but when I did, I was left underwhelmed by large parts of it. Similar to Narrow Road, I disliked the love story but was mesmerised by the descriptions of trench warfare. Both are novels I’d recommend, but only for the parts that focus on their respective wars.
Do I think it will win the Booker? … I don’t know. For me, it just misses the mark. But, with the rave reviews its getting in Australia and its Birdsong-like composition, it wouldn’t surprise me if it did win.
Disclaimer: I received a free Kindle edition of this book through NetGalley.