At an award ceremony London’s Guildhall in October last year, Richard Flanagan was named as the 2014 Booker Prize winner for his stunning historical drama, The Narrow Road To The Deep North and having read the book recently, we can only agree with the judging panel’s decision. It’s a wonderfully crafted drama that blurs the massive dividing line between a tragic love story and the incredibly harsh reality of life in a Japanese prisoner of war camp working on the infamous Thailand-Burma death railway.
Released on hardback and audiobook on the 3rd July 2014, Flanagan’s 464 page novel is the kind of book we would have been disappointed not to have read. It’s emotionally charged, thoughtfully presented, beautifully described and charged with a feeling of life, despite its more downbeat content and tragic storyline. It contains more than a few nuggets of wisdom that we can only recommend to all, and it moves at a pace that forces you to keep charging headlong towards the spinning blades of its epic windmill.
The story itself is centred around key moments in the life of its leading man, Dorigo Evans, as it weaves his character together into impressive solidity, spanning his early life in Tazmania, his introduction to his wife Ella, the torment of his time serving in the Second World War as a POW and the illicit love affair he becomes swept up in with his uncle’s wife, Amy. It makes for a lot to take in, but delivers it all in perfectly constructed, bite-size nuggets of truth and lie to interlock everything in its heart pouring narrative.
Structurally, The Narrow Road To The Deep North doesn’t follow a chronological timeline, instead favouring jumping snapshots of Dorigo’s tumultuous life with similarities to that other Great War novel, Catch 22. It’s one of the defining features of the book and a great method for Richard Flanagan to tie together themes, ideas, memories and motivations that would otherwise be a little obvious or dispersed with a linear structure.
While we loved reading the book, there are just a couple of slight issues that we have that may not take away from the staggering depth and weighty gravity of the novel, as such, but are worth mentioning – if for nothing else but to get them off our chest.
The first of these is that there are a couple of coincidences that feel a little too forced to feel believable, casting a little doubt on the storyline. Though not enough to make it completely stretched, it does leave a vague question in the back of your mind, especially when it comes to the first meeting of Dorigo and Amy and the eventual revelation that she is in fact his uncle’s wife.
The second minor issue is that we struggled with the number of times words were repeated in a rows of three. Amy, Amy Amy. Me, Me, Me. Dori, Dori, Dori. It all got a bit cloying at times and while it may well have been a devise to accentuate the importance of the triptych relationships at the heart of the book, it comes across as a little overdone.
However, the novel more than makes up for any minor personal annoyances with all of its mastery, which includes a studied exploration and analysis of the impacts of war. The lives it tares apart, the people it curls up into chocked embers of nothing, the minds it warps and twists for years to come and the lies that it forces on humanity are all dissected and grasped between thumb and forefinger before being lost to vague traces of what was previously so firmly in hand.
The Narrow Road To The Deep North is a rich and intricate story that swirls up history, brings to life memorable characters that will stick with you for years and provides an insightful exploration of life, humanity, hardship, disease and death. It’s tense and flowing with a phenomenal ability to evoke crystalline images of every passage of the book with exceptional description and choice of words.
One thing that is remarkable about the account, which takes inspiration from the stories Flanagan’s father told him about his own experience as a Japanese prisoner of war, is that all sides of the flipping coin are covered without judgement, condemnation or prosecution. It just is, and it’s presented raw and unfettered by one sided opinion to leave the reader with their own interpretation as it tries to do nothing more than present everything and leave the rest to you.
Names are incredibly import to the story and style of writing as they have hidden meanings and importance beyond their intoxicating brilliance. Dorigo’s name doesn’t feel like his own, the Goanna is excited by the discovery of his in spite of his impending fate, Amy’s becomes fused with the flow of a poem and the Dolly is anything but a child’s toy, but equally it becomes clear that in some ways it is exactly that.
This leads on to the unchecked unfurling of race and racism, showing both the polerisation of people and the ties that unite us. It’s shocking and difficult to hear at times, but as a novel that is true to all, it is true to the prejudice, stereotypes and racist slurs that were at the time of the book’s setting commonplace.
The importance of the line is just as much a part of this as it is the rest of the book as it questions the boundaries between what is perceived to be acceptable and what is not. Adulterous love, a loveless marriage, the atrocities of war, choosing between men to march to their certain death, choosing between trying to save one person over another, lies to save a relationship and murder to save a sister, they’re all stretched out on the lines of the book and you’re left to call where things stand.
Added to that is a seemingly defeatist concept of the futility of life piled upon life, where the past is washed away and entropy covers over all short lived motes of existence. However, as with all things in The Narrow Road To The Deep North, there is another side to this outlook that charges headlong into the face of such oblivion with an unwavering sense of purpose to keep trying to make it to the bamboo ledge.
This is filtered through a little nudge in the direction of knowledge as the only true definition of progression, both on a personal and on a global scale. The more we know and understand, the better we can shape the future, with the slight caveat that it will be sloshed with the excrement of the fading and warping influences of time, perception and memory.
From our point of view, we definitely feel a whole lot more knowledgeable, and have a subtly changed understanding of life thanks to the artfully played words that march the pages of Richard Flanagan’s great novel.
Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road To The Deep North review: 4.6/5