I am many times drawn to a book based on its cover. The graphical design of the cover or the actual tactile feel of the cover. With this book, I had to also consider the super cool title. The Narrow Road to the Deep North. That’s cool. Hemingway-esque, I’d say, but it’s actually taken from a 17th century Japanese poem.
The author based the story on true life events, partially on his Australian father’s experience as a Japanese prisoner of war. This book is brutal. At first you learn about the lead character, Dorrigo Evans, his life and his affair with a married woman. There’s foreshadowing about a character named Darky Gardiner. When Dorrigo leaves Australia, enters the war and gets captured, then you get into the bulk of the book. The prisoners who are starving and beaten regularly are asked to build a railway, which becomes known as the Burma Death Railroad because one of three POWs, who work on it, die. There is a chapter where you get to meet Darky and he’s a pretty cool dude and soon thereafter he is beaten mercilessly. Dorrigo is a doctor and the leader of the prisoners. He has to make ridiculously difficult decisions regarding the troops, but he manages to maintain, in his mind, a modicum of military decorum on behalf of the troops. He tries to make things better for the men. But he –and they – have to tools, resources, etc. It’s a god-awful circumstance.
One section describes in detail a surgery that he performs that is literally gut-wrenching. It’s tough to read, but it’s also important to read what people actually went through. The book also goes into the minds of the Japanese and Korean characters, during the war and also, more importantly, after the war when they are on the run as war criminals. They don’t believe that anything they did to the prisoners was wrong because they were brutalized during their training and their cultural mindset was … it’s better to die by suicide then to become a prisoner of war.
Of course, this book deserves more than three stars. It is an award-winning book. But for me, it was difficult to get through. I can appreciate the quality. But my star-giving comes down to my reading experience. The book earned the 2014 Man Booker Prize, given to the best novel written in English, published in the UK. I’ve read plenty of the previous winners including “The God of Small Things,” “Amsterdam,” “Life of Pi,” “The Sense of an Ending,” and “Lincoln of the Bardo.”