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The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Book Review.

Is it a love story? Or is it a novel that canvasses one of the most infamous episodes of Japanese history, the construction of the Thailand-Burma Death Railway in World War II? It is both, and more. It is quintessentially a modern-day classic.

Two years ago I read Richard Flanagan’s novel The Sound of One Hand Clapping unaware that he was the brother of one of Australia’s better journalists, Martin Flanagan. The book had a hauntingly profound effect on me. It seemed to carry a depth of human understanding that most writers don’t have the ability to articulate.
I made a mental note at the time to look out for more of his work. When the Booker prize was announced I was immediately drawn to the author’s name and the need to acquaint myself once again with the power of his words. And for me that is where the power of this work lies. In the language that sucks you in and plays with your emotions. Daring a greater understanding of suffering and of those who inflict it upon others for no other reason that a perceived superiority.

It may be unfair to compare writers and this is not an attempt to do so but more an observation about three Australian writers. Richard Flanagan Tim Winton and Markas Zusak all have an uncanny ability to describe the innermost soul of humanity. It is said that Australian actors have the same ability to characterise life.

When announcing the result the Booker Prize the chairman said the result was a majority decision that took several rounds of voting and took the judges three hours to decide the winner. “The best and worst of judging books is when you come across one so hard in the stomach that you can’t pick up the next one for a couple of days, you know you have met something extraordinary,” he said. “That’s what happened in the case of this one.”

I concur, usually I flow from one book to another without giving it a second thought. But on this occasion, because the profound audacity of his words that describe the futility and horror of war will not leave me, I have not been able to do so. The measure (be it a book, painting or a film) of the effect art has on you is its residual value. This one demands a second reading in a couple of years.

The book takes its title from one of the most famous books in Japanese literature, written by the great haiku poet Basho. The story is mainly focused on the struggle by Dorrido Evans, a surgeon, to save the men under his command, on the infamous Thailand-Burma railway. But he also weaves into it a love affair between Dorrido and his uncle’s young wife. His womanising and infidelity attest to an imperfect man.

It apparently took 12 years and five versions to complete this epic. “Each one was a failure then I realised that my father was growing old and frail and for no logical reason it mattered to me that I finished the book before he died.” He talked to his father on the details “as a way of just being with him”.

His father spent three and a half years in the camp, where 14,000 died, and Flanagan has said he had known for a long time “this was the book I had to write if I was to carry

Flanagan is the third Australian to win the prize in its 46-year history, after Thomas Kenneally, and Peter Carey who won it twice.

It is an extraordinary novel that canvases the emotional characteristics of the enemy and his adversary. Only the dead have seen the end of it.


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  1. Pauline Westwood

    I think you mean “this work lies…”Lays” is a transitive verb – it usually takes an object, such as a hen lays eggs or we lay the table for dinner.Best to get the English right…

  2. John Lord

    Thanks Pauline.

  3. Annie Byam

    John – Your review of this book, is in itself – quite breathtaking. …. Thank you for bringing it to our attention…..

    I rather think it will be included ( seriously ) in my Kris Kringle ‘list’ that the family requires before Christmas. We each have to list 5 items we might like.

    This book, will be one on my list.

  4. helvityni

    I read Flanagan’s ‘The Sound of One Hand Clapping’ and found it amazing, at times almost breath-taking. He understands the migrant experience, what goes in the mind of a young motherless girl…a great achievement by an Australian male writer, who most likely has lived in Tasmania all his life. Hopefully Santa brings his Booker winner; it’s on the wish-list and I have been good…

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