When a couple of months ago I asked the blog’s readers for recommendations of books written by Australian authors, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Richard Flanagan was one of the books I was told about (thank you, Robin!). The novel was awarded the 2014 Man Booker Prize, being described by the jury as a “remarkable love story as well as a story about human suffering and comradeship” (T. Masters, BBC, 2014).

In a nutshell

We are presented the story of Dorrigo Evans, a military surgeon in charge of the Australian Prisoners of War (POW) camp, during World War II. The prisoners were used as forced labour by the Japanese to build the Thailand-Burma railway (later called “The Death Railway”), one of the most infamous episodes of Japanese history. There are also other motifs sprinkled throughout the story (love, family, loyalty), but I think the central elements are the construction of the railway and the post-war trauma.

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The Thailand-Burma railway. Image from Awm.gov.au

Real events

I find it interesting to know that Flanagan’s story was inspired by real stories of people he knew – his father was one of the Australian POW who worked on the Death Railway, a Latvian friend of his parents inspired the love storyline, and he also met several Japanese guards who were in charge of the Death Railway project (Flanagan, The Sydney Morning Herald, 2013). That’s why the story feels so authentic, enriched with many details about small things like the smell in the camp or the taste of rice balls.

pow narrow road to the deep north readers high tea
Prisoners of war in Burma, 1943. Image from AnzacPortal.dva.gov.au

During and after war

For me, the most moving and meaningful parts of the book were the ones related to life during and after war. And it gets so interesting because events are presented not only from Australians’ point of view but also from the perspective of Japanese guards. For example, we find out the difficulties of both sides – while Australians were dealing with starvation and malaria, Japanese guards were being pressed by their commanders to speed up the construction process by any means.

The shock

Something that was shocking to me (among many other parts of the book) was the reason why Japanese were pushing so much the fast construction of the railway:

“It’s not about the railway [..] or even the war [..] It’s about the Europeans learning that they are not the superior race [..] and learning that we are.” (Japanese guard)

Even more war

Other intense moments were characterized by violence, surgeries, medical conditions, and also post-war reflections suggesting that both sides of the war camp (Australians and Japanese) were actually prisoners of war, being similarly traumatised after the war ended. I personally did not like the love story in which the main character was involved, somehow it did not convince me of its beauty and authenticity. In contrast, the war-related parts much more convincing and captivating.

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The Death Railway as it looks today. Image from TheDailyBeast.com


To conclude, I enjoyed reading “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” as it offered a very realistic and moving image of events happening during WWII from a geographical area that I was not familiar with. Even though I will not add it to my favourite books list, I would recommend it to readers who are interested in historical events or willing to discover a part of Australian and Japanese history.

‘Till next time … happy reading!


Images from Awm.gov.au | AnzacPortal.dva.gov.au | TheDailyBeast.com

4 thoughts on “Building the Death Railway: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (book review)

  1. Glad to see that you liked the book Georgiana, and liked your review as well. Including the maps and photos makes the history more vivid. My father was a POW on the railway so I have a personal connection but that aside I think the novel stands tall on its own merits. Robin

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks a lot for recommending it, Robin! I can only imagine the significance of the story for you … I think it’s very important that as many people as possible find out about these sides of history, as it helps us understand (even a little bit) to what extent war events and national pride can go …


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