Another confession from the life of the would-be booklover: I haven’t kept up with the Man Booker prize winners. In fact, The Narrow Road To The Deep North was my very first. The Booker is pretty much the most prestigious international literary award that a book can win, so I had high expectations for Richard Flanagan’s sixth novel…
From the blurb: “August, 1943. In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma death railway, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his love affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier. Struggling to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from beatings, he receives a letter that will change his life forever.” So, we can tell right from the outset that The Narrow Road To The Deep North ticks a bunch of boxes: historical WWII novel, love affair, heavy themes, horrific setting, a sliding doors moment… and, to top it all off, in the Acknowledgements section Flanagan says he was inspired by his father’s experiences as a Japanese POW, so we can probably tick off “write what you know” as well. These are all the criteria for a Man Booker, right?
OK, I’ll stop being sassy. (Just kidding, I can’t turn it off.)
It’s the story of Dorrigo, a POW doctor who can’t stop obsessing over a few lusty weeks with his aunt-in-law back home. It’s another jumpy timeline, which I didn’t love, especially given that in this one there were no helpful year/place markings at the beginning of any of the chapters; the reader is expected to just bloody well figure it out as they read (even though the chapter might be happening ten years after or thirty years before the one preceding). Flanagan really wanted the reader to work for it. He didn’t even bother with inverted commas around his dialogue; I know it’s “artistic” to do that, but it always strikes me as pretentious and try-hard. Hmph.
Anyway, The Narrow Road To The Deep North spirals out around one particularly horrific day on the Burma Railway in August 1943. Some chapters build up to it through Dorrigo’s pre-war childhood and courtship with his wife, while other chapters focus on the post-war lives of Dorrigo, his fellow prisoners, and his prison guards. So, yeah, it’s kind of sprawling and epic; the timeline runs to about a century all up.
(Oh, and you might think that the title refers to the railway they were building, but actually Flanagan borrowed it from a 17th century haiku poet, Matsuo Bashō, whose book “Oku no Hosomichi” translates roughly to “Narrow Road To The Interior” or “The Narrow Road To The Deep North”.)
From the beginning, the book is kind of a mixed bag. Some passages are really great and poignant and immersive, while others seem really over-wrought and ridiculous. The Romeo and Juliet-esque plot twist was a bit much (both Dorrigo and his aunt-in-law, the one with whom he was having the affair before he went off to war, believe the other to be dead, and this little miscommunication fucks up their entire lives). I’m not a romantic, so their whole tragic love story really didn’t “move” me in the way I think Flanagan intended. All the chapters set in Australia basically amounted to a bunch of bellyaching about how Dorrigo really enjoyed fucking women who weren’t his wife. That just wasn’t fun for me, and – taking off my sassy-pants for a minute – I’m not sure it makes for good literature.
On the other hand, I quite enjoyed the sections focusing on the POWs on the railway. That sounds twisted, I know, but those parts were straightforward, no bullshit, and totally gripping. Flanagan did not sugar-coat the realities of war at all, and for me that’s huge points in his favour. There were no ellipses, no fading to black: he described the full physical horror and indignity suffered by the POWs, not to mention their mental anguish, in complete and gory detail. So, as I’m sure you can guess, The Narrow Road To The Deep North is not one for readers with sensitive stomachs (or souls) – I’m a tough bitch, and even I felt queasy in places.
So, it covers off two major themes: the effects of war, and the nature of love. They’re pretty lofty themes, and a lot to tackle in a single book (which is probably why it seemed that Flanagan did the former so much better than the latter). To be quite frank, I think Flanagan would have been better off just chopping off the entire first third off the book, getting rid of it altogether. The story wouldn’t have lost anything that wasn’t reiterated and reinforced later on anyway. It’d be like cutting off a gangrenous limb (the way Dorrigo had to do on the Burma Railway, incidentally).
It’s a better book than All The Light We Cannot See, I’ll give it that; in fact, it’s probably one of the better historical WWII fiction books I’ve read in that it highlights quite well the ongoing and intergenerational effects of war (setting it apart from the ones that end on V Day). I suppose I can even (begrudgingly) see why it beat out We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves for the Man Booker in 2014; it’s a more “literary” book in that snooty, elitist sense… but I know which one I’d rather read, and which one I’d recommend more highly. Can you guess? 😉
My favourite Amazon reviews of The Narrow Road To The Deep North:
- “I picked 4 because of the start of the book. It tired in well, but took a bit to catch my attention. It was dreary and sad and I enjoyed it.” – Megan Vandewall
- “Why can’t writers just tell a story, instead of trying to be clever? I’m not sure Flanagan actually has a decent story to tell, but this is a piece of junk.” – ggh
- “The protagonist is an unappealing narcissist with a sophomoric attitude towards love.” – S. Luke
- “Had trouble reading and staying interested in it. Too much narrative.” – saunabear
- “Horrible pictures in my mind! Don’t need any more examples of man’s ability to be cruel and stupid. I’m going to go hug my cats.” – Diane Denham