"The Narrow Road to the Deep North" by Richard Flanagan (2013)
"He thought of how the world organises its affairs so that civilisation every day commits crimes for which any individual would be imprisoned for life. And how people accept this either by ignoring it and calling it current affairs or politics or wars, or by making a space that has nothing to do with civilisation and calling that space their private life. And the more in that private live they break with civilisation, the more that private life becomes a secret life, the freer they feel. But it is not so. You are never free of the world; to share life is to share guilt."
Richard Flanagan is an Australian writer and director. He has written six novels and five works of non-fiction. He co-wrote Baz Luhrmann's 2008 movie Australia, and received the Man Booker Prize in 2014.
His 2013 novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North details the life and times of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian surgeon deeply scarred by his experiences in a Burmese prison camp under the Japanese. The novel is roughly chronological, jumping from his earliest years in Tasmania, to his hellish years in Burma, to his rise to fame and fortune in post-WWII Australia.
And I must say that the the scenes in the concentration camp are among the best fiction I've read about the Second World War. They are harrowing, and a few Google searches only proved that yes, things like this actually happened.
The only problem is that the book doesn't quite hang together as a whole, and some of the sections set outside Burma detract from the masterful sections set within it. Structurally, I admire what Richard Flanagan was trying to do, but the "love triangle" elements set in Australia don't seem to belong alongside the brutal accounts of life inside a Japanese prison camp.
Yes, setting the entire book inside the prison camp might have made it too similar to other novels, but most of the framing narrative set outside of the camp calls too much of the prisoners' suffering under the Japanese into question. The chapters set in postwar Japan are excellent, but the remainder of the book feels like an inferior, unfinished novel, fused into what should have been a more straightforward book on the Australian experience during WWII.
This said, I think that where this book truly shines is in its depiction of East vs. West. The Japanese characters in this novel are all given their due, and at times the ways in which their philosophy clashes with Western ideas of warfare makes for fascinating reading.
I wouldn't say that The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a flawless book, but it's definitely one of the best books I've read in a while. Not as honed as The Orenda which preceded it, but a solid effort nevertheless. I'll be looking out for more of Richard Flanagan's books in the future.