For The Newtown Review of Books:
Beside the funeral pyre of Australian soldiers killed by cholera, Dorrigo Evans, surgeon and leader of a camp of prisoners on the Thai-Burma railway, wants at first to burn the sketchbook of one of the dead men. One of his assistants in the camp hospital points to watercolours of atrocities, of torture, and of the everyday life of the camp. ‘Memory is the true justice,’ he says. Dorrigo disagrees:
We remember nothing. Maybe for a year or two. Maybe most of a life, if we live. Maybe. But then we will die, and who will ever understand any of this? And maybe we remember nothing most of all when we put our hands on our hearts and carry on about not forgetting.
Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North is an unflinching attempt to stave off that forgetting and, in doing so, to explore heroism, sacrifice, suffering, love, trauma, and memory. This is an ambitious order, and for the most part Flanagan is up to the task. There are passages of brutal beauty, where his flair for the sentence that rises from the muck into soaring poetry allows him to connect small moments to the larger forces of life history. Flanagan’s father was a prisoner-of-war in the Japanese camps, and that lived knowledge of the trauma carried by the surviving soldiers gives the novel its solidity.