''A happy man has no past,'' Dorrigo Evans thinks, ''while an unhappy man has nothing else.'' The Narrow Road to the Deep North moves like liquid back and forth through his past and present, both of which are dominated by his experience as a prisoner of war on the Thai-Burma Death Railway.
In his youth in Tasmania he plays football, and he finds something transcendent in its mixture of toughness and grace: ''All his life had been journeying to this point when he had for a moment flown into the sun.'' He also develops an early love of literature and a reverence for the power of the written word that will echo through his story, which turns on a letter he receives.
His fate, however, lies elsewhere and after signing up to the war as a doctor it is his experiences as a colonel that mark him irrevocably. Being thrust into a position of responsibility, he finds he has courage and an instinctive knack for leadership, which he neither sought nor fully understands. He negotiates on behalf of his men, taking responsibility for the ''terrible arithmetic'' as their captors demand more and more hard labour from his ailing men.
Before long, disease sets in - ulcers, scabies, starvation, gangrene, ringworm, lice, cholera. Bodies start piling up. The thought of Australia, which once kept them going, begins to feel increasingly distant, an abstraction, a half-forgotten dream. Struggling to maintain the hygiene that will keep them alive, the men lust after scraps of food and hide morsels in their meagre possessions to devour later. Some learn to barter with their tormenters for small favours, while others toy with the thought that death would come as a relief. Meanwhile, their bodies continue to disintegrate, as Dorrigo observes men with ''eyes that already seemed to be little more than black-shadowed sockets waiting for worms''.
A serial womaniser, he feels out of his depth when he meets Amy in the heady atmosphere of an Adelaide bookstore where Max Harris reads his poetry. Mesmerised by her physicality, which ''made him feel almost drunk with its scent and touch and sweep'', and finding someone whose passion for the written word matches his own, he is consumed by thoughts of her.
But a twist owing a debt to Greek tragedy sees her marry Dorrigo's uncle, Keith, more out of a sense of duty and circumstance than any great passion. Their affair produces some of the book's most lyrical writing; Dorrigo thinks, ''her body was a poem beyond memorising''.
In later years, Dorrigo has become feted as a national hero, the public clinging to an image detached from his philandering, uncertain self. He throws himself into a string of affairs and maintains a natural magnetism, but comes to realise, ''the more people I am with … the more alone I feel''. The plot quickens as Australia moves into the second half of the century with a more confident bearing, leading to a classic set piece that loops back to a scene at the Death Railway.
A story that is both harrowing and deeply humanist, The Narrow Road to the Deep North has been billed as Flanagan's most personal work, inspired by his father's stories of his POW experience. It is also perhaps his most ambitious, a deeply felt attempt to come to terms with the almost unimaginable horror of the Death Railway. In an already sparkling career (few novels get as close to perfection as Wanting), this might be his biggest, best, most moving work yet.