I was originally going to describe this Booker Prize winning novel as “a bit of a curate’s egg”, that is to say good in parts, but thinking about it further that would be wrong, unfair and confusing. Why so? The phrase derives, as I am sure you know, from a Punch cartoon of the late 19th century. It pictures a timid-looking curate eating breakfast. His host remarks: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones.” The curate replies, desperate not to offend his eminent host and ultimate employer: “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!”
So the phrase should mean something that is obviously and essentially bad, but described as only partly bad—its supposed good features credited with undue redeeming power. That was the original meaning at least – there is no such thing as a partly bad egg. But to be honest I have used the phrase slightly differently, to describe something that is indeed partly good, partly bad, but where the bad part is so overwhelmingly bad as to spoil the whole. A balloon with only a tiny hole in it still bursts. However, usage of the phrase quickly drifted from these meanings, and is now defined in Wikipedia as “something that is at least partly bad, but has some arguably redeeming features.” Which has got to be wrong – a bad egg has no redeeming features, however much the curate may wish it has to avoid the embarrassment of his situation.
Phrases like this change their meaning all the time, and it is not something I am going to get worked up about, but I intended to honour the memory of Punch by avoiding it to mean partly good. Which is what “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” was. It has some powerful descriptive passages, most strikingly the scenes in the Burma Death Railway POW camps, and also the escape from the forest fire at the end of the novel, but there are other much less successful parts of the novel. These less successful parts do not spoil the overall effect, even if they do bring it down a notch or two.
The novel opens with a first person narative by Dorrigo Evans, surgeon and World War 2 veteran. The time scheme is very fluid, and jumps around confusingly. Clearly this is for effect, but the overall impression is incoherence. We know Dorrigo survives the war, because we see him in old age, so some of the traditional suspense of a linear narrative is forfeit. Dorrigo has a romance with his uncle’s much younger wife, shortly before going off to war where he is quickly (in terms of the narrative) taken prisoner. The novel really only takes off when it reaches this point – the survivor’s account of the brutality of the Death Railway. This is unblinkingly horrific, vividly portrayed, and pretty disturbing. Flanagan shows some events from the perspective of the prison guards, and this insight into their thought processes and values humanises them to some extent. Nevertheless this is not a “we are all guilty in war” portrayal – there are good people and bad people here, just that the bad people remain human despite their barbarity. (An example – the Japanese forces supervising the building of the railroad were given insufficient tools and machinery to lay the track. So they had to force the prisoners to build the railway with just hand tools and back breaking labour, all the time on sub-starvation rations. No wonder so many died, but did the Japanese forces have the choice of just abandoning work on the lines? Did they have spare food and medicines they withheld from their prisoners?)
The war ends suddenly and almost in passing, and the horror comes to a close. The trauma lives on of course, although Dorrigo seems to cope remarkably well considering. His tragic romance with Ella is easily the least successful part of the novel. She believes he dies in the war, he thinks she has also died, so there is no post-war happy ever after. This is not particularly tragic nor moving, and even when they do finally meet they move on without speaking. Flanagan’s prose in these sections is at times horrible, sub-Mills and Boonian. For example (page 81) “Ella was kind, he told himself. And somewhere within him he pitied Ella, and buried even deeper was an understanding that they would both suffer because of her kindness and his pity. He hated her kindness and he feared his pity, and he wanted only to escape it all forever.” Yuck.
A few years back I made a valiant effort to read as many Booker Prize winning novels as possible. I was doing well until beaten by Hilary Mantell – I managed to finish “Wolf Hall”, but just couldn’t face “Bring up the Bodies”. The Narrow Road puts me back on track, and while I have some reservations I am glad I read it, expanding my knowledge of Australian contemporary literature along the way. But I have no inclination to delve into Flanagan’s back catalogue, which I think is the test of whether this really was prize-winning literature.