The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthBy Richard Flanagan
Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2014, this is a novel of the cruelty of war, tenuousness of life and the impossibility of love. 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.
Local Book Reviewers
If Richard Flanagan set out to confront and challenge the reader, he did so in spades. The Introduction, 18 short chapters preceding Chapter 1, was effectively a summary of the book and had me reaching for the dictionary and re-reading many paragraphs to comprehend contradictions and meaning. His writing style seemed less intense after the introduction, contributing greatly to my ultimate enjoyment of the book without diminishing the power of the message of horror that the Australian POWs experienced at the hands of their captors. The unusual and complicated love story woven through the atrocities of war was compelling.
I’m sooooo pleased I persevered with this book. At the beginning the narrative confused and frustrated me. It changed time and place so frequently that the characters became a blur. I found myself re-reading whole paragraphs hoping to make sense of what seemed to be a very confusing book. So, why recommend it? The quirkiness of the structure was overcome by the brilliance of Richard Flanagan’s writing, which is at times sublime, even though the content is harrowing. Like me, overcome your aversion to the realism of war writing and celebrate this account of the survival of the human spirit.
I read this book when it was first released and found it most unsettling. But don’t let that stop you. Reading it again, I’m enjoying the language. Flanagan uses words in fresh ways, like “the sourdough smell of old age”. Dorrigo Evans struggles with the “bland new world” where cooking shows mean more to people than poetry. There are vignettes that have stayed with me. They are vivid, poignant and even humorous. I won’t spoil them here.
All in all, this is an important Australian novel about a time that we need to remember, written by a talented writer.
I had a go at reading this book last year and gave up! This time, I struggled with gaps in early chapters, such as the leap of a boy to a medical degree and his love of Tennyson’s Ulysses (I googled it!) Excellent research included Richard’s father’s wartime experiences and writings of Weary Dunlop and others. The reader is transported to the horror of the POW camps, so understated at times that images are even more vivid. The novel’s strengths include the struggle of Dorrigo and others to adjust to life after the war and the imagining of the fate of the Japanese prison guards. Worth persevering!
I started to read and waited for the rhythm of the words to touch me. And there he was, Dorrigo Evans, the main character in this story, a real human being with all his failings. He becomes a doctor, World War II begins and this man with a Don Quixote personality always tilting at windmill, ends up in Changi with the poor buggers that once were Australian soldiers. Richard Flanagan wants us to feel it – the never ending rain, the slush, the brutality and the horror that seems to go on forever. And then it’s over. There is so much to this story: passion, pain, blood, decency, humour and how humans act and react to an unexpected situation not of their choosing. Richard Flanagan has written a stunningly beautiful book.
After reading this beautifully written sweet and sour multi-award winning fictional biography three things come to mind. (Yes, I have Irish ancestry!) The first thing is the title. It’s a winner. This allegorical title was borrowed from a famous Japanese novel and is symbolic of the life journey of the main character, a flawed surgeon, who is both a war hero and a cad. The second thing, the sweet thing, is Dorrigo and Amy’s love affair. For the romantics, the first meeting and subsequent love scenes are exceptional and exquisite pieces of writing. The third thing, the sour part, is the Thai-Burma Death Railway section. The description of the shockingly inhuman brutality to the Australian POW by the Imperial Japanese soldiers is gut wrenching. It shines a terrible light on Japan during World War II. Thanks to our forefathers, what a fortunate life we have inherited.