I am kind of burned out on historical novels with dual story tracks: one in the present, one in the future. (I’m also tired of book titles that identify female main characters in their relation to men.) As an avid reader of historical fiction, I always find that part of the story much more interesting than the contemporary one. But I liked the way this double story line worked, and The Narrow Road ended up being one of my favorite novels of the year.
The story centers on Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor serving with the army during World War II. He is taken prisoner by the Japanese and endures one of the worst horrors faced by those Allied captives: forced labor on the Thailand-Burma railroad. Richard Flanagan does not make his main character a hero, nor is he an endearingly flawed character. Dorrigo is much more an ordinary guy, sometimes likeable, sometimes irritating. Before leaving on military assignment, he jeopardizes his engagement by getting involved with his uncle’s young wife, Amy. The memories of that relationship and his hopes for the future shape Dorrigo’s POW experiences, and the resolution of that love triangle is a bit unexpected. But the real power of this novel lies in Dorrigo’s character. He is in most ways average and ordinary, yet he survives an extraordinary event. Flanagan resists making Dorrigo into a hero. Sometimes events don’t make the man. Sometimes he is already made, and the events simply make him more himself.