Throughout The Narrow Road to the Deep North protagonist Dorrigo Evans strives unwillingly, unwittingly, “… (t)o follow knowledge like a sinking star/Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.” These lines from Tennyson’s Ulysses capture the hero’s plight: the more he experiences, the less he seems to know, the less he seems to be capable of dealing with. Like Ulysses, Dorrigo finds late in life that he lives among “a savage race,/That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.”
After becoming a doctor and enlisting in the Australian army in 1942, Dorrigo Evans, promised to another, meets – or is captured by – Amy, a young woman who is married to his uncle Keith. And in her arms he finds he understands nothing of love, of human conduct, nor of the attractions of any other woman. He experiences extremes of confusion. Life, the world, the human race – all are incomprehensible. He never feels more alive nor more confused as during his weeks with her by the Adelaide seaside. His resulting unmooring, through his heroic service with doomed Australian POWs in Siam and Burma, and his subsequent honors and fame, imprisons him in an impenetrable solitude.
Richard Flanagan, author of the astonishing Gould’s Book of Fish, has produced a work of overwhelming power; it will sear your consciousness with the staggering facts of heroism, murderous cruelty, a boundless love beyond comprehension. And yet through it all, our hero cannot feel certain of these basic facts. Dorrigo’s confusion rings true because the author displays a master’s command of language and consciousness. He sets Dorrigo and Amy alone in the universe at the seaside resort, in the thrall of a passion that overwhelms any description, that surpasses rational thought. He tells of the POWs on the death railway in a more straightforward way because that story has its own enormity, its own incomprehensibility.
I’m tempted to quibble about a couple of plot points that seem to rest on flimsy foundation, like Dorrigo’s and Amy’s postwar failure to seek each other out, or the not-quite-necessary family connection from the POW camp. But these are quibbles, and certainly not the right way to end this review. Take this stunning book up. It deserves its accolades, and Richard Flanagan deserves his prominent place in today’s pantheon of writers.