Book Review (BookerMarks): The Narrow Road to the Deep North

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On Tuesday, September 9th, the titles that will move on to comprise the Man Booker Shortlist will be announced. I fully and wholeheartedly expect The Narrow Road to the Deep North to be firmly positioned on that list.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North will leave you stunned and deeply moved, or at least, it did me. I was left breathless on many more than just one occasion. There are so many wide and varied feelings you will experience, ones that swing your emotions from the more visceral and astonishing moments over to the heartrending, profound and beautiful ones. There are any half dozen sentences or paragraphs that could be included here to best show the power and gift Flanagan wields with his words. There are so many, really you could simply open the book to any page, point blindly and then bask in their beauty.

I’ve selected this one below to give an example of the more beautiful and profound, although I can’t tell you this is the most powerful one, it was just the one that struck me as wonderful at that point when reading it:

And Dorrigo realised he might never see Amy again. And with this knowledge, he knew he would have to work, to operate, to go to bed and rise again and live, and now go wherever the war took him, without another soul knowing what he carried deepest in his heart.

And here is but one mere example of the more visceral, however it is probably best read again in the context it was presented, and this one was made after one of those moments where I was left gasping for air:

… he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilisations it created, greater than any god man worshipped, for it was the only true god. It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal. For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boot and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, an all human history was a history…

The dedication at the front of the book, “to prisoner san byaku san ju go (335)”, is Flanagan’s way to honour his father, an Australian POW during WWII, and as Goodreads reviewer (Jill) states: “The Narrow Road is based on an actual event: the building of the Thai-Burma death railway in 1943 by POWs commanded to the Japanese. The title comes from famed haiku poet Matsuo Basho’s most famous work and sets up a truism of the human condition: even those who can admire the concise and exquisite portrayal of life can become the agents of death.”

It is an incredible story that continuously applies direct punches to the gut over and over again, but it also presents, and does quite sympathetically so, all/both sides, and at its very heart it is a great love story: in the first pages, a love story to Dorrigo’s one true love but then also for the love of these men that he shared this astonishing experience with.

Dorrigo is the main character, is a surgeon operating in the POW camp assigned to help build the death railway. He tells his/their story through a series of back and forth tales, from the past, to the time spent in the camp and to his present, old man self.  What gives this book such great power and integrity is that Flanagan does not present sides or is more sympathetic to the Australian prisoners, or point fingers or encourages hate against the Japanese, instead he so skillfully shares all experiences, of the Australian men beaten, starved, tortured, brutalized in the POW camps but also of the Japanese and Korean men in charge of the POWs. Great time and patience is also taken to show the life for all of the men involved in the camps (prisoner and soldier), during and following the war and also extends to beyond their return home.

It was incredible. I don’t think I can say anything more generous than that. At times it left me shaking and I’m sure the expression I wore on my face during the more tortured moments was one of twisted pain, but it was a beautiful, beautiful story too. The Narrow Road to the Deep North handles itself with incredible strength and integrity and is an exceptionally well-deserved contender for this prestigious literary award. 4.5 stars.

(This will be simultaneously posted on the BookerMarks site)

Also, thanks to Knopf Publishers as they did send an advanced reading copy/galley of this book well before it was nominated for the Man Booker. Much appreciated.)

Literary Hoarders Penny rev