Book Review / The Narrow Road To The Deep North

The Narrow Road To The Deep North, Richard Flanagan, Man Booker Prize, Bramble and Thorn, Review

Something I've been wanting to do a bit more of on my blog is to write a bit more on recent things I have read, seen, or listened to. After recently finishing The Narrow Road To The Deep North, I knew it was time to try and get my thoughts written down, as I haven't been able to get this book out of my mind.

Title: The Narrow Road To The Deep North
Author: Richard Flanagan
Country: Australia
Year Published: 2014
Plot Description: The book tells the story of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor haunted by a wartime love affair with his uncle's wife. Post war, he finds his growing celebrity as a war hero at odds with his sense of his own failings and guilt. Taking its title from 17th century haiku poet Matsuo Bashō's famous haibun, Oku no Hosomichi, best known in English as The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the novel is epic in form and chronicles an Australian century, with one horrific day at its heart on the Burma Railway in August 1943. As that day builds to its climax, the novel grows to encompass the post war lives of Japanese and Korean prison guards as well as Australian Far East Prisoners of War. The novel deals both with the effects of war and the many forms of love.

The Narrow Road To The Deep North, Richard Flanagan, Man Booker Prize, Bramble and Thorn, Review

The Narrow Road To The Deep North has recently received worldwide praise after receiving the 2014 Man Booker Prize, as well an enjoying much national acclaim in being the fourth Australian to win the prestigious award. After reading the first few chapters of the book, I was already marvelling at Flanagan’s beautiful prose. Let me tell you, it's a rare thing when you can read a description of a desiccated corpse and admire the beauty with which it was written. While a good deal of the novel deals in horrific detail the events of the Burma Death Railway, I still found myself pausing occasionally to appreciate the way in which Flanagan had just written a scene. 

Of course, there were many parts where I couldn't help but cringe when I read them. The experiences told from Dorrigo, as a doctor in a prisoner-of-war camp on the line, are truly horrifying. The descriptions of the wasted prisoners-of-war, ruined by malnutrition, disease, and abuse are vivid in detail. One passage (which I won’t go into detail here) documented the most awful death I could ever possibly imagine, and has haunted me ever since.

The novel winds its way through a present day narrative and recollections from the past. This technique was used masterfully, carefully revealing pieces of the story to the reader at just the right moment, often with a devastating effect. I really appreciated the delicacy of how each narrative was joined together, as it was never overdone or felt like a gimmick. This really allowed the reader to appreciate each piece of information as it was gradually presented. The juxtaposition between the beautiful pre-war scenes on a beach near Adelaide with the daily torture on the line often feels like a punch in the gut as you’re led from one point in time to the next.

The Narrow Road To The Deep North is a deeply personal one for Flanagan, who’s own father was a survivor of the Burma Death Railway. He dedicated the novel to him: prisoner san byaku sa ju go (335), the number in Japanese given to him as a prisoner-of-war. Sadly, his father passed away on the day Flanagan finished writing the book.

Although this isn’t an easy book to read (due to the shifting points in time throughout the narrative, as well as the subject matter), I think it’s an incredibly important story that needed to be told – particularly for Australian’s like myself who may be ignorant to much of this part of World War II. It's a grim tale, without many light moments, however is one of the most powerful books I have ever read.