Literature: Recommendation – The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

By Bill

Seeing as the Booker prize is in full swing, with the shortlist being announced last week and the final winner to be revealed next month, I thought I’d keep the trend going by recommending one of the most deserving winners of the award in recent memory. Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the prize in 2014 and I have never been so taken and captivated -- so quickly -- by a novel before. I hadn’t read the book before it won the prize, but I started it the morning after it was announced and blitzed through its 448 pages in less than two days. Never had I read something so beautifully brutal before.

 

I recently ranked the top 6 war novels and Narrow Road was included, so check it out if you want more literary goodness.

 

The novel is set before, during, and after the events of World War II, but instead of the action taking place on the beaches of France, or the muddy battlefields of Belgium and its devastated towns, the novel is primarily set in Burma during the construction of the Burma ‘Death’ Railroad by the Japanese. Our protagonist is an Australian medic who is captured and forced, as a POW, to build the railroad. Dorrigo Evans is also the highest-ranking member of the POWs and is seen as the leader who is responsible for the men and the horrors they endure; not just their morale, but their health, and some of the most traumatic sections of the novel are when Dorrigo is frantically trying to save the lives of his men, his friends, his fellow POWs. No novel has ever had me thinking I would rather be a frontline soldier. The torturous experience of the POWs is heart-wrenching, and Flanagan is unflinching in his portrayal of the pain and fear.

 

 

Whilst the most striking moments within the novel take place in the jungle with the dying and the hate, the rest of the novel largely concerns itself with Dorrigo Evans and his love affair with his Uncle’s young wife. Because the prose is simplistic and elegant (borrowing a lot from the mastery of Japanese poets, like Basho – from whom Flanagan also borrowed the title) the love story never strays into sickly sweet territory and is told in the same basic (yet massively effecting) terms as the central love story in 1984 between Winston and Julia. Flanagan himself felt the prose was not great, but methinks he was just being modest as it’s graceful and sophisticated and always a joy to read.

 

“She was full of yearning. To leave, to be someone else, somewhere else, to start moving and never stop. And yet the more the innermost part of her screamed to move, the more she recognised that she was frozen to one place, one life.”

-The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

 

 

The novel is full of heart and humanity and even when the reader is faced with the most depraved and brutal of human behaviours, Flanagan never points the finger of blame at any one character. Even the most hateful characters are often shown at other times to be sympathetic and human. This book will tell you more about what it means to be human than any other novel of the past twenty years.

 

Once in a while, a novel comes a long that grabs hold of you so tightly that it just refuses to let go, and this – for me – is one of them. Do yourselves a favour and read this masterpiece … a very well-deserved Booker winner.

 

“A good book, he had concluded, leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul.”

-The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

 

Let me know what you felt about the novel on Twitter @MugwumpBlog

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