Review: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

I know. It’s a novel. But bear with me. It’s a really good one. In somewhat confusing chronology Richard Flanagan recounts the life of an Australian doctor who was an officer during WW2. He grows up poor, gets to go to school, moves rapidly up the social ladder and becomes a bit of a hero when he goes to war and is taken prisoner by the Japanese. His character is one of my favorite characters in fiction. He’s noble, yet quite unsympathetic. He’s selfish towards the women in his life, but selfless towards his men in the prison camp.
Flanagan’s father was in one of those camps, and the novel attempts to tell the story from the inside, from a few different points of view. This novel shows that there are aspects of this war that are very poorly processed in the national consciousness of the countries involved. Some things we would like to forget, but keep coming back to haunt us. This is particularly true in Japan.
Only last november there was a bit of upheaval as a Japanese newspaper retracted the term ‘sex slaves’ from its English edition. Even though in 1993 the Japanese government formally apologized for forcing women from occupied territories to serve in brothels for the Japanese military, the issue is still controversial in Japan. The Narrow Road to the Deep North doesn’t deal with this issue (there is one reference to it), but it does talk about how some war crimes went unpunished.
Within the scope of the novel Flanagan informs his reader about the aftermath of WW2 in Asia. About who was punished, and who was not, and why. About the suffering at both ends of the conflict. Recently my friend Selma van Halder spoke to Canadian students about the war. About the healing and understanding that happened when she, grandchild of an inmate of a Japanese prison camp, met with the grandchild of a victim of the atomic bombs on Japan. And about why it’s so terrible to pretend it never happened. Read her story, it’s epic. Almost as epic as the novel by Richard Flanagan, which will educate you on Australian prisoners of war in WW2, in the most exciting prose you can imagine.

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