The “Just Is” Life

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan

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The best novels are useful tools in ways that perhaps readers never consider, i.e.; to inspire, similarly to religious texts. This may seem a rather odd comparison, but novels do tread the same ground as religious texts—not to give you rules to live by that were established eons earlier by tribal societies, but to reinforce the more or less eternal values and qualities of life’s constant changes by allegory, by story. While the novel is a fairly recent device, its progenitors are the myths that attempt to explain and understand life, the sagas and oral stories that depict the same.

The story in Man-Booker Prize winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, is a deceptively simple one: the horrors of WWII’s Asian theater mark forever the lives of hundreds of Australians—and their Japanese keepers—both parties tasked with building a railroad through the jungles of Burma. Flanagan wishes to leave us in a cautious, pragmatic state of mind as we explore the life of surgeon, Dorrigo Evans, and with him his POW mates who are in virtual slavery to this Japanese rail project. While the Australian men’s spirits dictate survival here, the Japanese see the POWs as disgraced by their willingness to be taken alive. In Flanagan’s hands, the Japanese prefer death to such a life as the POWs are subjected to, and are more than willing to work and starve these unfortunates to death.

But Flanagan’s story doesn’t end with the war’s end. He tarries to explore these men’s damaged lives upon their return to civilian-ship, even the Japanese, who must contend with the conflicts of combatants who have fought—and lost—a war. While Flanagan’s narrator claims to see life on earth as “just is,” life built on perpetual violence, he doesn’t deny his characters a shot at love, at the community of their fellow men and women. The problem is, the only community, the only love, these ex-POWs seem able to know is that which they experience in coaxing one another to survive their horrid existence in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

My rating 19 of 20 stars

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