November’s Bookclub Review: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Sunday 30 November 2014 by

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan, Book, Chatto & Windus, Man Booker PrizeThe Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Published by Chatto & Windus

Forever after, there were for them only two sorts of men: the men who were on the Line, and the rest of humanity, who were not.

In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Burma Death Railway, 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.

Hailed as a masterpiece, Richard Flanagan’s epic novel tells the unforgettable story of one man’s reckoning with the truth.

~*~

“Hailed as a masterpiece” is about right. Before we even get started, I will put it out there: this is a gorgeous book. A harrowing read that will leave you haunted, but a gorgeous read nonetheless.

The Narrow Read to the Deep North tells the story of Dorrigo Evans and his experience before, after and during his time as a Japanese Prisoner of War on the Burma railway, which cost the lives of thousands. The narrative is not linear, dragging you back and forth between episodes, which will leave you feeling all the more haunted by the POW parts and all the more heartbroken by the romance bits.

I did wonder how they would follow The Luminaries, but The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a worthy Booker winner, promising depth and beauty and eerie poetry. Flanagan has written in the style of traditional Japanese writings, which can make for some beautiful imagery. Dorrigo himself is not actually that well-imagined for me; other characters are much clearer, and Dorrigo often appears as a Nick-in-Gatsby-like character, which observes rather than partakes. This works very well in this book, meaning that you get a birds-eye view of something, yet it includes the on-the-ground horror. I loved the aspect that meant you followed a certain character for a few pages, as Flanagan describes what happens to them many years after the end of the book (a sort of “she would go on to die peacefully in her bed twenty  years later” thread, but I can’t find a direct quote to demonstrate!) There’s something about this book that stays with you – whole passages or images or impressions are remembered, because it is so powerfully visual.

I also liked the fact that a few chapters focused on the Japanese side of the coin. Although not sympathetic characters, you got a deeper understanding of them and that made all the difference when reading the particularly upsetting scenes. As for the other characters, I wish we had spent more time with Darky Gardiner, and that the women had played a more prominent role. If there is one criticism of the book, it is the fact that the women barely featured, but claimed to be such important pieces of the puzzle. I know that this was about POW camps, and so was ultimately less likely to have women hanging around, but considering a large portion (I’d even go as far as to say two thirds) actually wasn’t set in the camps, I kind of feel that argument is invalid.

I can’t really describe how I feel about this book. I should love it with all my heart, but it left me so emotionally drained, and its subject is so intense, that I’m not sure I can say that with any cheerfulness. It doesn’t make for light reading, and it is perhaps not a book I will be revisiting any time soon. It is a masterpiece of emotionally-wrenching fiction, with the right amount of stoicism, dispassionate oratory and deft use of horror to keep you gripped all the way through. Emotion on the part of the characters is not an option, with only glimpses in to their deeper feelings, and this works well to increase the tension and lengthen the detail.

What is interesting is that both the previous Booker winner and current winner have both used “different” writing methods; The Luminaries was in the style of a Victorian mystery novel, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North like a Japanese travel memoir or poem. These styles lend themselves to their subjects, improving the reading experience by absorbing you in to a lilting, less-familiar, but more comfortable way of reading. Looking at Narrow Road with a technical eye, I can only sing its praises.

Besides, I haven’t read something that made me cry in public in a while (although reading H is for Hawk and The Opposite of Loneliness in quick succession afterwards did mean I spent most of my commute for the past few weeks in tears). And if a book elicits as strong a response as that from me, I class it as pretty damned good.

But most of all, I loved Flanagan’s writing. Hearing him in interviews – modest, soft-spoken almost to the point of taciturn – it is almost a surprise to see such language written down. He has a magical way of drawing you in to the story, making you feel like he’s telling it to only you. I was impressed by this writer, and I want to read more. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a book that is hugely important to read (I feel that it will have a profound effect on me for some time to come), and as a Waterstones Book of the Year nominee, I can only see it going from strength to strength.

 “My only idea ever, Dorrigo had confessed, is to advance forward and charge the windmill.”

What did you think of The Narrow Road to the Deep North?

December’s House of Blog Bookclub is Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke! Tweet your thoughts through the hashtag #HoBBookclub on Twitter or write on the wall on the House of Blog Facebook page.

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