The Narrow Road to the Deep North [Review]

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Title: The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Author: Richard Flanagan
Publisher: Vintage
Date of Publication: 23 September 2013
Number of Pages: 448

Rating: 5 stars

Summary:  A novel of the cruelty of war, and tenuousness of life and the impossibility of love.

What would you do if you saw the love of your life, whom you thought dead for the last quarter of a century, walking towards you?

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.

Review: This is the one time when you should believe the praise that streams over the cover of a book. I often ignore these quotes, confident in the knowledge that I can work out the worth and merit of a book without assistance. The Sunday Times calls The Narrow Road to the Deep North, “devastatingly beautiful” while A.C Grayling, Man Booker Prize Judge 2014 states “Some years, very good books win the Man Booker Prize but this year a masterpiece has won it.”

Our emaciated, cadaverous bodies were covered in rags, we were all barefooted with bandages covering our ulcers and we were almost all rotten with malaria and beri beri. … our own Black Jack Galleghan, the Iron Commander of the A.I.F. at Changi … was shocked to the point of silence and tears.

[Stan Arneil, describing the return of F Force to Changi in December 1943, One Man’s War, Sydney, Alterative Publishing, nd, 154.]

There are two magical sentence in the space of less than three pages.

Why at the beginning of things is there always light?” (1)

“A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else” (3).

The imagery is brutal.

“The mortars the French had used in their attack had transformed the Australian defenders into things not human, drying dark-red meat and fly-blown viscera, streaked, smashed bone and the faces clenched back on exposed teeth, those exposed, terrible teeth Dorrigo Evans began to see in every smile” (33).

“…this feeling of communion, would at moments overwhelm him. At such times he had the sensation that there was only one book in the universe, and that all books were simply portals into this greater ongoing work – an inexhaustible, beautiful would that was not imaginary but the world as it truly was, a book without beginning or end” (63).

“The God way. Talking about God this and Got that. Fuck God, he had actually wanted to say. Fuck God for having made this world, fucked be His name, now and for fucking ever, fuck God for our lives, fuck God for not saving us, fuck God for not fucking being here and for not fucking saving the men burning on the fucking bamboo” (249).

Hellfire Pass

Three prisoners at Shimo Songkurai in 1943. The effects of malnutrition can be seen in their skeletal frames and the stomach of the man on the right, distended by beri beri. The photograph was one of the last to be taken by George Aspinall on the camera he smuggled up to the Thai–Burma railway from Changi. [By courtesy Tim Bowden] Image available from http://hellfire-pass.commemoration.gov.au/australian-prisoners-in-the-asia-pacific/thailand.php

The Narrow Road to the Deep North has given me an increased appreciation for the literature of my homeland. It has left me feeling grounded and re-connected to the country I will forever call home even though I haven’t been back for a while. The Narrow Road to the Deep North made me think of the TV series Changi and it made me think of my two great-uncles and the hell they experienced in New Guinea. The Narrow Road to the Deep North made me consider the way we learn history and how much of it is about other cultures and other wars, sometimes to the detriment of our own. Taking in a small sample of tv shows available via Sky here in the UK, one becomes aware very quickly how much research and time and money goes into producing programs about Hitler, and mega-machinary, and conspiracy theories and the role of Europe during the Great War. There is little about the Australians (and other Colonial outposts at the time) and the hell they experienced fighting for an Empire that many of us feel no allegiance to either then or now.

It might be clear from what I have written here that I was 110% invested in this book. The world outside its pages faded away I was happy to feel consumed by Flanagan’s words. This is the kind of book that makes you want to divorce every other book on your “to be read” list because it doesn’t matter how good they are, they will never be in the slightest way comparable to what you have just experienced.

There have been few books before this one where, as I read the last page, I burst into tears. I am also jealous of people who will come to read The Narrow Road to the Deep North for the first time because I cannot read it again with virginal eyes.

Issa

Sure, some people haven’t liked it and some will think it the worst thing they’ve ever read. You can’t please everyone. For me, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is, hands down, one of the best books I have ever read.

Thank you Richard Flanagan, thank you!


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