‘We will die, and who will ever understand any of this?’ So asks Colonel Dorrigo Evans, second in command of the Australian Imperial Force’s 2/7th Casualty Clearing Station, slave worker on the Siam–Burma ‘Death Railway’ and the redoubtable hero of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Flanagan’s novel is dedicated to ‘prisoner san byaku san jū go (335)’ – his father, a survivor of the railway (and worse) during the latter half of the Second World War. And it has already become a bestseller in his homeland, where it serves, among other things, as another brick in the wall against forgetting.
Colonel Evans, a Tasmanian Army surgeon with a fondness for Tennyson (‘Ulysses’, not coincidentally), is mobilised for war, leaving behind a burgeoning affair with his uncle’s much-younger wife. After stints in Egypt, Syria, and Changi Gaol in Singapore, he winds up in 1943 in thrall to the murderous, ‘Pharaonic’ Burma