‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Richard Flanagan

‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Richard Flanagan   (2014) – 334 pages

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The father of author Richard Flanagan was a prisoner of war to the Japanese and a survivor of the building of the Siam-to-Burma Railway during World War II.  Flanagan’s new novel ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ is about the harrowing construction of that railroad among other things.

In 1942, the Japanese had just conquered the country of Burma from the British.  They saw Burma as a good launching point for an attack on India, but it was difficult to get supplies to Burma.  Allied forces were bombing the sea routes.  Thus Japan decided to build a railway from Bangkok in Siam (now Thailand) to Rangoon (now Yangon) in Burma (now Myanmar).  All of the Japanese men were fighting the war, so they used men from Southeast Asia and Allied prisoners of war as slave labor to build the railway.

The working conditions for building the bridge were atrocious and at least 100,000 men died during the fifteen months it took to build the railway.  The project was ill-supplied. Not enough food was available, so the men had to work while near starvation.  Huge epidemics of cholera, dysentery, and malaria swept through the workers.  Beyond that, dozens of men were beaten to death by their Japanese and Korean overseers.

There was another novel and movie about this railroad, ‘The Bridge Over the River Kwai’, which was hopelessly unrealistic and naïve in its treatment of the situation.  ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ captures its full horror and desolation.

‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ is mainly about the Australian prisoners of war who had to work as slave laborers building the railroad as well as their Japanese and Korean overseers.  Dorrigo Evans is a doctor and officer, so he must deal with the illness and injury of the Australians.  Some of the scenes in the novel are horrific.

Flanagan begins each section of the novel with a short piece of Japanese poetry.  The lines from the last section serve as a good description for the entire novel.

In this world

we walk on the roof of hell

gazing at flowers.

             Issa   

 Not the entire novel is about building the railroad which is  ‘the roof of hell’ part of the novel.  There are also large sections taking place in Australia with Dorrigo Evans before and after the war.  These are the ‘gazing at flowers’ parts of the novel.  Early in the novel Dorrigo Evans has an intense love affair with his uncle’s wife Amy.   Somehow there does not seem to be much point to these love scenes beyond showing that the world is not all misery and heartbreak.  But these sensuous scenes also serve to make Dorrigo’s heroism seem more ambiguous later.

However ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ is a complex novel, and a lot of its power derives from that it does not present its scenes as cut and dried.   The parts of this novel may not fit together neatly, but that may be a good thing as we struggle to a deeper meaning of events.   Richard Flanagan goes to great lengths to understand the mindset of these Japanese captors who treated their prisoners and workers so cruelly.  In today’s world we have seen even the United States routinely using torture when dealing with its political prisoners.

‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ is a fine example of a novel that is open-ended, that preserves the mysteries of life and has no easy answers for them.

 

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27 responses to this post.

  1. I love what you say about the ‘gazing at flowers’ part of the novel, I hadn’t thought of it like that.
    But it’s so apt, because flowers, like his love, are ephemeral. Love can die, as flowers do.
    But I also think that depicting Dorrigo’s other life shows that he and the men he represents are more than just heroic victims. Looking back on anything to do with war, we tend to focus on the war as the dominant aspect of a man’s life. They did this at my father-in-law’s funeral, where the eulogies spent more time on six years of his war service than on all of the rest of it, which was a life full of achievement. This novel pays respect to the totality of Dorrigo’s life.
    I’ll link to this review from mine:)

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    • Hi Lisa,
      I suspect quite a few readers felt the ‘Amy’ story didn’t have a satisfactory conclusion. Their affair was so intense, it seems kind of inconclusive that they would never talk to each other again and pass on the street and not even say Hi. But that’s probably Flanagan saying there are a lot of loose ends in life. Of course, when something’s over, it is over.

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  2. […] Update: John Boland’s review at Musings of a Literary Dilettante is superb.  Check out Tony’s too, at Tony’s Book World. […]

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  3. I won’t read this now — but will try to remember to come back to it at the end of the month, as I have been saving this book until my reading group did it, which is September. I am looking forward to what I believe will be a great read.

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    • Hi WhisperingGums,
      The only other Richard Flanagan book I’ve read is ‘Gould’s Book of Fish’, and that was very different from this one. Both take as their starting point an event in Australian and/or Tasmanian history and go from there.

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      • Thanks Tony … I’ve read quite a few, not surprisingly, though not his first couple. I’m greatly looking forward to this. Gould was quite different to all of his that I’ve read, I must say.

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  4. Tony, I have wanted to read this. What a great review! I loved Flanagan’s book Wanting–Dickens was a character–and this sounded the best of those on the longlist. I’ve read a couple of reviews, and yours seems the most fair, juggling both parts of the books. I’m sure I will get to it sometime. Our library doesn’t have it at the minute, but I’m sure it will be coming along.

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    • Hi Kat,
      One thing that makes Richard Flanagan different is that he is from Tasmania which is a part of Australia, but is still a separate island. A lot of Tasmania is in a natural state, and it is the part of Australia farthest south and closest to Antarctica. ‘Gould’s Book of Fish’ is very much about the early years of Tasmania.

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  5. It sounds as Lisa says that the affair shows that life isn’t defined by one incident, however terrible, and that endings aren’t actually neat or simple. The lack of fitting together neatly sounds the most interesting thing about the book in some ways, how can you make something like this fit neatly into a life? It makes no sense after all, the horror of it.

    Nice review as ever.

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    • Hi Max,
      I’m definitely with you that everything shouldn’t fit together too neatly in a novel or story. There should be some ragged edges for it to be real. The first section is about Dorrigo having an affair with Amy, the second long section is the prisoner of war section, and the third section is after the war. It still does seem to me that it would have tied the novel together better if when Dorrigo approaches Amy in the third section, they would have at least said something to each other considering how close they were in the first section. But this is a minor quibble to a fine novel.

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    • Yes, good point, Max, there is no way to make this experience ‘novel-ish’. What’s extraordinary for me, is that having read the book when it first came out which is a while ago now, I am not so overwhelmed by what I remember of the middle section, but have a stronger memory of the poignancy of the last part.

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      • Hi Lisa,
        My reactions were the reverse of yours. I was overwhelmed by the middle section, and the last section seemed a bit scattered to me.

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        • I haven’t expressed myself well. At the time when I read it, I was shattered by the middle section, and I think that affected how I read the rest of it. But now – more than half a year later – the shock of the middle section still reverberates, but it’s the last part that I remember more.
          Maybe my brain has processed it that way because my mind doesn’t want to store the brutality of the Line? I had read other books about this, including Weary Dunlop’s, but Flanagan’s way of writing about it is more visceral, which given how graphic parts of Dunlop’s account was, I would not have thought possible until I read The Narrow Road for myself. I remember that when I was reading it I had to stop sometimes and go for a walk in my garden in the summer sunshine to free myself of it, to bring myself into the present. I felt not as if I were there with them, but as if I were a helpless observer.
          So I think my brain has suppressed my memory of it a bit.

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  6. Posted by Kelly S on September 9, 2014 at 6:29 PM

    Nice review, Anokatony! I just read that this books was nominated for the Man Booker Prize Short List: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/09/09/man-booker-prize-shortlist-announced-2/

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    • Hi Kelly,
      I’m happy that Flanagan made the short list today. The novel deserves it. I haven’t read the other five, but the Ali Smith and the Neel Mukherjee interest me.

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      • Posted by Mij Woodward on September 10, 2014 at 12:37 AM

        Just another great reason to follow your book blog–I get caught up with the latest Booker news! I’ve read the Fowler book, found it edifying and interesting and in some places, moving–but just do not see it as deserving the Booker. But then, seldom do the judges and I agree about anything. Very much looking forward to Flanagan’s book, and glad you have reviewed it here.

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        • Hi Mij,
          Fowler’s novel has been out for a long time, and at one point I was close to reading it. I didn’t and now it feels like I may have missed the boat. Probably if it wins the Booker, I’ll read it then which will be really late. The Ferris book got poor reviews here, and I had a bad experience with Jacobson before, so I won’t be reading those two.

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  7. Interesting review Tony … I think the Amy scenes are pretty critical to Dorrigo’s future. Losing her, and letting himself be drawn into marrying Ella, changed his life irrevocably. When he sees Amy later he realises that it was she who had lived, and he who had died. Little did he know that she felt the same. At the end, which goes back to when he reads the news of her death in Ella’s letter, he says “he would live in hell, because love is that also”. The book ends on the idea of love which suggests, I think, that it’s an important theme?

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    • Hi WhisperingGums,
      Somehow I think Dorrigo was better off as things turned out marrying Ella than winding up with Amy. Amy was the great passion in his life, but sometimes steady and reliable beats overwelming passion, especially in marriage. As Max says above, sometimes it is better that a story doesn’t fit together neatly but has some loose ends. Like life.

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      • Yes I totally agree re not having neat endings. As for marriage and love, I guess the thing is whether the partners are happy with their decision and Dorrigo never was

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        • Harumph … I was trying to fix Forrigo to Dorrigo and the screen kept jumping around resulting in my finger hitting the Post button. Anyhow, I think the fact that Dorrigo was never happy with his decision was very sad for Ella and their children. It infected them all, don’t you think?

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          • That’s the thing. I doubt if the events in Australia caused Dorrigo’s unhappiness. That would have been his time building the railroad. I fixed your first Dorrigo.

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            • Thanks Tony … on the laptop this time. Far more reliable! I guess I got the feeling that things in Australia did contribute significantly to his unhappiness, which was one of the reasons that he kept delaying his return after the war. He didn’t come back until 1948 and only then because he couldn’t think of anything else to do to keep him away. That says something I think about what he thought he was returning to.

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