Monday, September 14, 2015

Book Review: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Standalone novel
Publisher: Vintage Australia
Release Date: 23rd September 2013
Read Date: 9th July 2015
Tagged Under: 2015 read, 2015 favourites, 5, adult fiction, favourites, historical, literary, book review
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Book Summary

A novel of the cruelty of war, and tenuousness of life and the impossibility of love. 
Richard Flanagan's story - of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor haunted by a love affair with his uncle's wife - journeys from the caves of Tasmanian trappers in the early twentieth century to a crumbling pre-war beachside hotel, from a Thai jungle prison to a Japanese snow festival, from the Changi gallows to a chance meeting of lovers on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. 
Taking its title from 17th-century haiku poet Basho's travel journal, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is about the impossibility of love. At its heart is one day in a Japanese slave labour camp in August 1943. As the day builds to its horrific climax, Dorrigo Evans battles and fails in his quest to save the lives of his fellow POWs, a man is killed for no reason, and a love story unfolds.

Book Review

This book... I don't really have a good way to start a review on The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I have thought long and hard for the last several months as to how I could convince people to read this book knowing that there is a high risk that they may walk away hating it. All I could come up with are the following statements.

It's long and at times, difficult to take in. It's heartbreaking. You should read it.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North chronicles the lives of a whole cast of diverse characters from their pre-war life through to their life-changing experiences during World War II and follows them as they pick up the pieces of their former lives in the war's aftermath. This myriad of stories centers around "The Line" - Imperial Japan's vision of constructing the Thailand-Burma Death Railway through the use of their captured Prisoners of War - and Dorrigo Evans, an Australian surgeon, struggling to keep his men alive in such hostile and brutal conditions.

I must admit, it is a grim read. Richard Flanagan lays down the brutal and honest truth - forcing the reader to confront the lives that Prisoners of War had to endure, day in and day out, There were several points during my reading experience where I was torn between not wanting to put the book down and needing a break because it was simply too much to take in all at once. I have to credit it all to Flanagan's rich vivid writing. There are frequent moments where I look up from the book in disbelief at what was happening in the book. The sheer senselessness of all that went on during World War II and the way Flangan brings it alive within the bounded pages of a novel is remarkable.

Scattered throughout the horrors of "the Line" are snippets of the characters' lives both before and after the war. To some readers, the constant change of time can be maddening and off-putting. For some characters, their lives after the war are laid out in a few simple paragraphs long before the end of the book. For others, their ends are not revealed until the events unfolded on the page. I was also initially thrown off by this style of narration. However, through this style, we are introduced to a large cast of characters - from the main character Dorrigo Evans to the Japanese (and Korean) prison guards to the people back home in Australia who were not in combat but nevertheless affected by the war. I didn't think I would but I really enjoyed the way the different characters' lives interwove throughout the novel.

I really applauded the fact that despite all the atrocities contained within the book, there was never a sense of outright boundary line between "us" and "the enemy." Instead, there is a profound sense that both sides are doing what they believed was in the best interest of their country. There is no big reinforcement of the theme "good" vs "evil". Instead, this book was about the war's impact on the people that lived it. And it's only by seeing who these people were before the war and how the war's end has affected their lives that the extent of the war's effects are truly felt. 

Amongst the horrors of the war, there are little sparks of life - the POWs putting on plays to keep each other entertained, the comradery that the Australian soldiers showed (or didn't show - highlight the diversity of life). My favourite moment in the book is [spoiler hidden - highlight to reveal] the gang of survivors, on a reunion night, trooping down to Nikitaris' Fish Shop and liberating the fishes (because they were also POWs). I think the closest I came to crying was when the next day, they went back to apologize and instead, were treated with kindness by the shop owner who valued the meaning of comradeship and whose son was also killed in WWII.[End-spoilers]

Of course, there are areas of the book I didn't enjoy quite as much. In any other book, I don't think I would have minded. But maybe because the book was amazing in so many other areas, these areas felt like they fell short. I didn't really see the relevance of Evans' complicated romantic life - unless it's too highlight that all humans have a complicated past and you shouldn't simply it just to make the story neater. I think even without it, the book would have been amazing.


This is an amazing book that still leaves me in awe. I can definitely see why it won the Man Booker Prize for 2014. It is big and complicated, consisting of a myriad of snippets of life, and I cannot stress how much I recommend this book.
"A good book, he had concluded, leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul."
~ Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North 
Lest we forget.

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