This novel has as its heart and soul a male character called Dorrigo Evans who becomes the surgeon and commanding officer at a Japanese POW camp of Australian soldiers. Dorrigo is not a particularly likeable chap. He reminded me of the protagonist of Salter’s All That Is. A male from the old school, egotistically incapable of love who self-servingly dramatises feeling rather than succumbs to it. Feeling for him is a kind of armour he employs to protect himself from his burrowed sense of his own shortcomings – most notably his inability to love his wife and children. He is haunted (though not sustained) by his love for his uncle’s young wife, Amy. To my mind the relentlessly overwritten character of Dorrigo was what let this novel down. Apparently this was Flanagan telling his own father’s story so maybe put all the overwriting down to the admirable attempt of a son to do his father justice – though, ironically, for me it had the opposite effect.
Okay. It started off really well and I was sure I was going to love this novel until Flanagan started writing about sexual passion. All of a sudden, he began to read like a frustrated older man working up into a firework frenzy the lost passions of his youth – his rather self-consciously epic tone suddenly striking a galore of false notes. And from then on I was continually tripped by the constant wheezing and straining for high epic grandeur which repeatedly threw Flanagan’s voice out of tune. The Narrow Road does not have the effortless control of say previous Booker winner Hilary Mantel’s two Cromwell novels. He’s trying way too hard to write an epic (the awful film Australia sprang to mind for which Flanagan wrote the script). But I think this also comes down to Flanagan’s shortcomings as a dramatist. More often than not highly charged language replaces characterisation and as a result empathy with characters is surrendered. Take this for example – “To hold a gesture, a smell, a smile was to cast it as one fixed thing, a plaster death mask, which as soon as it was touched crumbled in his fingers back into dust.” What the hell does that mean? Flanagan won the worst sex award; I’d nominate him here for the most overblown and absurd account of the act of memory.
His insistence on the epic sweep of his novel is also evident in the relentless cataloguing of horrors. The problem is the horrors take precedence over the individuals they’re happening to. The beating of one man, already on his last legs, lasts four pages and becomes boring before it becomes preposterous. Later we’re told how Japanese surgeons performed autopsies on living American prisoners though this is an historical detail that feels shovelled gratuitously into the narrative for more shock horror. Just as he strains in his love scenes so too does Flanagan strain when trying to evoke the horror. As I said, Flanagan isn’t a great dramatist. He’s much better at analysis. The author’s dispassionate insights are often the most memorable passages of the book, the philosophical insights of preceding drama. Like this – “He grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror… the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boot and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence. Violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilisations it created.”
And the best characters, oddly, were the Japanese officers and guards.
Flanagan shows us how the “Japanese spirit”, the Emperor’s will takes hold of the psyche of these men and replaces the circuitry of personal morality. A brilliant scene is when Colonel Koto learns how to cut off heads with his sword. The alienation from his humanity brilliantly evoked. Another memorable passage is the last night of the Korean guard before his execution for class B war crimes when he does a brilliant job of taking us inside the heart and soul of a condemned simple man who was doing nothing but obeying orders. This is a novel about ordinary men given experience they have no way of understanding or coming to terms with.
Flanagan is cleverer at showing the gifts to be had from war than the horror. Captures brilliantly the sense that the war experience remains pivotal to the life of these men and in many ways the most redeeming feature of their lives. The horror of war has been done many times; the redemptive humanising gifts of war less so and this, for me, is where Flanagan excels.
The women in this novel are insipid. Outside of the war, the novel’s most important character is Amy. “As a meteorite strike long ago explains the large lake now, so Amy’s absence shaped everything, even when – and sometimes most particularly when – he wasn’t thinking of her.” But here we have another problem. This isn’t about Amy; it’s a man seeking to convince himself his feeling is grandiose. Amy is unbelievable as a living breathing woman. She’s a man’s wet dream, even – especially – when Flanagan takes us inside her feeling. Flanagan even replicates some of Dorrigo’s feelings in her. So when Dorrigo can’t stand the physical proximity of Amy, Amy later can’t stand the physical proximity of Dorrigo. Amy is male wish fulfilment. Made clear when we later find out she has supposedly spent her life pining away for Dorrigo – a stance completely at odds with her pragmatic character (initially she married a much older man she didn’t love for the physical comforts he could provide so how idealistic is Amy really?). I never believed in Amy as anything but a male projection.
This isn’t by any means a bad novel but I find it hard to believe there weren’t half a dozen more deserving novels for the Booker prize. I’m soon to read The Bone Clocks, All the Light We Cannot See and Zone of Interest and I’ll be amazed if all three aren’t more worthy winners.