Richard Flanagan: The narrow road to the deep north (Review)

Courtesy: Random House Australia

Courtesy: Random House Australia

I love generosity of spirit, the ability to rise above terrible things to see the humanity that lies beneath. Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize shortlisted The narrow road to the deep north is, without being sentimental or glossing over the horror, a generous book – and this is why I expect it will be one of those books I’ll remember long into the future.

I know I’m late reading it – but this is because I’ve been saving it until my reading group did it, which was earlier this week. Consequently, I spent the last few days of September engrossed in the life of Dorrigo Evans, war-hero, lover of poetry (and of too many women), and, most significantly, POW from the Thai-Burma Railway. It’s one hell of a tale … and not exactly what I expected.

On the surface, Dorrigo had a successful life. He survived the POW camp for one thing, was highly regarded in his career, became a war-hero celebrity due to a documentary (loved this!), and had a long-lasting marriage with three children. But, this is not the full story. Chapter 2 of Book 1, commences:

A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else. Dorrigo Evans never knew if he had read this or made it up. Made up, mixed up and broken down. Relentlessly broken down.

This sounds like it could be PTSD, but it’s not. PTSD is important, of course, but Flanagan is interested in broader issues. In many ways the book feels like a big 19th century novel – it has lots of characters, spans a long time-frame, doesn’t shy from coincidences, and explores big themes – but in style, it’s very contemporary, with frequent shifts in time and place, and multiple third-person subjective points of view. It requires concentration to get all the connections, and would benefit from a second reading. Just the sort of book I enjoy getting my teeth into.

I said in my opening paragraph that the book wasn’t exactly what I expected. That’s because I was expecting more war, and perhaps more anger, than I found. There is war, of course, much of it gruesome, as fits the “truth” of that situation, but the main thread is a love story, accompanied by meditations on ideas like truth, goodness and manhood. I can’t possibly discuss all these or we’ll be here forever, so I’m just going to focus on a couple.

“to somehow be more truthful as a human being” (Nakamura)

One of the novel’s strengths is the balance Flanagan strikes between brutality and humanity. He does this partly by paralleling the life of Dorrigo, the commanding officer of the POWs, with Nakamura, the commanding Japanese officer. Nakamura is the enemy but isn’t vilified as you’d expect. Flanagan shows Nakamura to be brutal towards prisoners but we also get inside his head. We learn that he is not comfortable in his own skin – he is, in fact, addicted to shabu (speed) – and that he needs his superiors’ arguments to convince himself of the right of what he is doing. That he is able to do so – that is, to buy completely into the notion of the “Japanese spirit”, into the Emperor’s goals of “The World Under One Roof” – is believable. What soldiers don’t buy into their nation’s “mythology” (whatever it is based on)?

Flanagan follows Nakamura post-war until his death, as he endeavours to rebuild his life – firstly under a false identity to escape being tried as a war-criminal, and later as himself, married and a father. He struggles to define himself – and is surprised to feel himself transformed into “a good man”. A decade or so after the war, his memory of his brutality fades:

time … allowed his memory instead to nurture stories of goodness and extenuating circumstance.

However, when he is dying, he finds it increasingly difficult to hold onto “his idea of his own goodness”. Comparing this goodness with that of his wife, it comes “close to collapsing altogether”. He searches for the “good things in his life — separate of the Emperor’s will, of orders and authority” but finds they are few when compared with his memory of “skeletal creatures crawling through the mud”. His death poem, concluding with “clear is my heart”, is tinged with irony, but reflects his desire “to conceive of his life’s work as that of a good man”.

By contrast, Dorrigo believes himself not to be a good man, to be “entirely bogus”. He marries a woman he doesn’t love, believing his true love to be dead:

For the rest of his life he would yield to circumstance and expectation, coming to call these strange weights duty. The guiltier he felt about his failure first as a husband and later as a father, the more desperately he tried to do only what was good in his public life. And what was good, what was duty, what was ever that most convenient escape that was conveniently inescapable, was what other people expected.

And yet, he’s a “war hero” and validly so. At one point on the Railway, when they are all starving, he refuses to eat some steak. Rather, he sends it back to the men, having “found himself the leader of a thousand men* who were strangely leading him to be all the many things he was not”. This is not false modesty – the men did bring out his best – and yet this modesty is not completely valid either because Dorrigo did have good in him. He was a man prepared to take action for others, at risk to himself. In his last comatose days, he feels that his life had “only ever been shame and loss”, but his final words are words of action, alluding, self-deprecatingly perhaps, to Don Quixote’s windmill but also reminding us of the last line of the poem that defined him, Tennyson’s “Ulysses” – “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

 “a poem is not a law” (Bonox Baker)

Two other notions run through the novel – and I’ve already alluded to them both – the love of literature, particularly poetry, and the workings of memory. One scene in particular brings these ideas together. It concerns the funeral pyre for some cholera victims, who include the artist Rabbit Hendricks. When cholera victims are burnt, their personal belongings must also be burnt, but Bonox Baker wants to save Rabbit’s sketchbook because:

it’s a record … So people in the future would, well, know. Remember, that’s what Rabbit wanted. That people will remember what happened here. To us.

Dorrigo quotes from Kipling’s poem, “Recessional”, arguing that everything is forgotten in the end, that it’s better to just live. Bonox disagrees, telling Dorrigo that

A poem is not a law. It’s not fate Sir.
No, Dorrigo Evans said, though for him, he realised with a shock, it more or less was.

For Dorrigo, for Nakamura and for his commanding officer, Colonel Kota, poetry is essential in some way to their lives. Dorrigo, who lived at a time “when a life could be conceived and lived in the image of poetry” eventually finds himself “living in the shadow of a single poem”, while for Nakamura poetry emulates “the Japanese spirit” by which he tries to justify or explain his actions.

Bonox, though, is interested in something else. He continues to argue with Dorrigo about the sketchbook:

Memory is the true justice, sir.
Or, the creator of new horrors. Memory’s only like justice, Bonox, because it’s another wrong idea that makes people feel right.

And so we come to one of the paradoxes that Flanagan exposes in the book – individual memory versus the memory industry. Dorrigo is outed as a war hero through a documentary, which makes him uncomfortable, and yet “to deny the reverence seemed to insult the memory of those who had died”. The memory industry, however, too often ignores the “truth” of the experience in preference for the facts, as bugle-player Jimmy Bigelow discovers:

His sons corrected his memories more and more. What the hell did they know? Apparently a lot more than him. Historians, journalists, documentary makers, even his own bloody family pointing out errors, inconsistencies, lapses and straight out contradictions in his varying accounts. Who was he meant to be? The Encyclopaedia bloody Britannica? … His words and memories were nothing. Everything was in him. Could they not see that? Could they not just let him be?

Paradoxically, Flanagan is questioning the memory industry while at the same time contributing to it. And it is a powerful contribution. Just goes to show the power of literature!

This is a big messy novel, about the two messiest things humanity confronts – love and war. I love its messiness, its lack of answers, but it sure made it hard to write about. Fortunately, Lisa at ANZLitLovers and John at Musings of a Literary Dilettante have also given it a go.

Richard Flanagan
The narrow road to the deep north
North Sydney: Vintage Books, 2013
ISBN: 9781741666700

* Aussie readers will recognise Flanagan’s reference here to Weary Dunlop.

44 thoughts on “Richard Flanagan: The narrow road to the deep north (Review)

  1. This is a lovely review, Sue. Each time I read a review of this wonderful book I remember reading it and being so overwhelmed by that generosity that you refer to at the beginning. I do so hope that the Booker judges see that too….
    PS Thanks for the mention:)

  2. Pingback: The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  3. Hi, I did not read the whole review because I want to discover the book on my own terms but it’s in my pile of 2014 fiction to read ASAP, in part because the book looks good and in part because my team at work is in Australia and I started picking up some Australian books last year. I will return to your review after I read the book!

    • Ah, a woman after my own heart Sylvie. I didn’t read Lisa’s or John’s until I drafted my review. I’ll be interested to hear what you think when you get to it. I had my copy of the book waiting to be read since Chiristmas!

      • Hi Sue, just finished the book, finally… It is just breathtaking. The construction of it, the juxtaposition of different cultures, the use of poetry to underline the varieties of survival strategies, just amazing stuff… The random choices that human beings make that end up making a life what it is… It’s just hard to start another book just after finishing something like this. Very intense!

        • Thanks Sylvie – so glad you liked the book too. Love your comment re “The random choices that human beings make that end up making a life what it is”. Always interesting when authors explore that. I suppose in a sense that’s what they all do but in some novels the choices and their impact are quite explicitly part of what the book is about aren’t they?

  4. A very powerful review. This is another book that keeps calling my attention but will have to wait, regardless of whether or not it takes home the big prize this year.

    • Thanks John, and you’re welcome. I enjoyed your review too … there was so much to talk about in this novel and I’m glad you spent time on the Amy story that I haven’t done here.

  5. Great review. You’ve beautifully captured the ambiguities of this novel. Real people rarely behave consistently and Flanagan reminds us that it is possible to think the best and worst of ourselves almost simultaneously. A thought-provoking, insightful and confronting novel – aren’t they the best kind?

    • Thanks Michelle — oh yes, I love novels that are ambiguous, paradoxical. I also loved the fact that he didn’t demonise the Japanese, but didn’t whitewash how they treated the POWs either. I suspect that’s confronting for some people.

      • I was worried you’d ask me that. I read it last year so can’t remember the specifics (and didn’t write a review at the time), but I found it sentimental and unconvincing, particularly the ‘love’ story. I know: blasphemous.

        • Well of course I was going to! But I totally understand. Very hard to remember details a year later. That’s interesting – I, obviously, didn’t feel that at all but I guess I can see how it’s possible to see it that way.

          I haven’t seen many criticisms but I did read one that felt there was no central story. I’m wondering whether that’s about its structure. And another that picked out writing bits they didn’t like, but neither of these were readers I know. Oh and, Romy Ash had a minor quibble about being tied up too neatly. I guess there was a neatness in one sense, but I think that depends on your perspective. I tended to feel it was open rather than neat. I haven’t read many reviews because I tend to avoid them until I’ve read the book so am planning to check a few more out over the next few days.

  6. I started this in July and put it aside after reading 50%, it was too harrowing for me, but I wasn’t giving up, I just needed another perspective, reading this book with it’s incredible visual imagery (full credit to the author) was too much for me, so I paused and read Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth instead. Although this book supposedly balances both, the evil and the empathy, there wasn’t enough of the latter for me to be able to endure those mid book passages, so I thought I’d go to war with a woman who volunteers as a nurse and see what she saw and how it affected her and her life thereafter.

    I am now picking this up again, with some trepidation, but encouraged by reviews such as yours, however I’m not sure I can be converted and wonder if it is necessary for us to have to imagine such extremes of evil, torture and horror to understand something about humanity. Just as I can no longer continue to hear about beheadings in the media.

    • Thanks for commenting Claire, and for sharing your reaction to the book. Is it “necessary”? I’m not sure it is, but I’m not sure either that I could argue that it is “unnecessary”. Part of me feels that if people have suffered these things I need to understand it – and I need to be able to confront it. Otherwise I can wander through my life thinking the world is a nicer place than it is. I can also wander through my life not understanding (or making assumptions about) why people do what they do, or how people survive the things they survive. I’m not sure this is making sense, but for me actually confronting these horrors in fiction (albeit fiction based on fact) does probably contribute to my understanding of humanity. (As for those beheadings, I must say that disturbed me immensely and there’s no way I would go searching for the YouTubes.)

      I read Testament of Youth a long time ago, but I don’t remember much about it now I’m afraid.

      • I agree with what you say and I am not one to avoid literature for this reason, but this particular book and its recounting of behaviours in such a visceral way disturbed me immensely, so I sought a non-fiction narrative in its place until I felt I could come back to it.

        Do you think you understand why these people did the things they did having read this book? I think about psychopaths and how little is yet known of whether this kind of condition is a genetic cause or an environmental consequence. But reading about the thought processes and explanations of the natural instincts of a psychopath explains more to me about how people can inflict harm without empathy than reading about the actual torture or suffering inflicted on the victims.

        Ultimately I know so very little, we can only try and raise kind, compassionate children and be that ourselves.

        • That’s a good question. One of the things I like about this book is Flanagan’s exploration of the Japanese senior officers. I got two things out of this. One is an understanding of what the Japanese mindset might have been (I wouldn’t generalise from this to all Japanese prison officials/guards but it gave me a perspective I hadn’t fully comprehended before). Flanagan went to Japan and interviewed Japanese guards and prison officials. The other is that by not demonising the enemy and yet not flinching form the horror, Flanagan encourages understanding and forgiveness rather than bitterness.

          And, yes, I agree re raising compassionate children – how hard it is. My now grown son has struggled at times with my focus on compassion when it wasn’t always extended back to him, but I just can’t comprehend any other philosophy of life. And this is why I liked this novel I think. Flanagan seems to me to be an ultimately compassionate person.

        • I know how you felt, Claire, I had to take ‘reality breaks’ between readings because I was overwhelmed by the horror too, even though I had a good knowledge of these atrocities from reading non-fiction about it. But I have a slightly different tack. I think that if we are going to send soldiers off to war, we have a responsibility to know what might be inflicted on them, and conversely what they might do to others. I think that in a democracy we have to take responsibility for things done in our name whether we voted for the government that sent them or not, and we owe it to our soldiers to understand what happens in war.
          If they have to bear it, I think we have to be able to bear reading about it.

        • PS … Non-fiction has its place of course, but its impact is generally different. Sometimes the visceral will provide an immediacy, a reality, that an intellectual analysis misses. That is, it might be easier to hear the analysis and then put it aside in a way that a fictional account can’t be. I guess it’s part of what you want – to get into the heart or into the head. I think fiction gets more into the heart while non-fiction can let us protect the heart a bit? This is a generalisation though isn’t it.

  7. Thanks Lisa … that’s pretty much how I feel and partly what I meant when I wrote that “Part of me feels that if people have suffered these things I need to understand it – and I need to be able to confront it” but you have said it far more eloquently.

    • This is a book I would like to read- it sounds fascinating. Did you ever read the Eric Lomax book The Railway Man which is a memoir that deals in the same sort of territory? It is very good to have such thoughtful and sensitive books written and published that transcend the needs of the memory industry.

      • Thanks Ian. No, I still haven’t read his book though I did see the movie and was really moved by his eventual decision to forgive. I did think of it as I was reading this novel. As you say, he also conveys, at least I assume the book does too, the extreme brutality of the Line. It was horrendous viewing …

  8. I like the sound of this one, especially since poetry and memory are important in it, two of my favorite things to read about. Just went and put myself in the library hold queue for this one. It might be a messy book as you say but you’ve done a wonderful job writing about it.

    • Oh yes, you’ll find this interesting Stefanie I think. Each of the five “books” are introduced by haiku. And I’d lke to have written more about the Tennyson poem. I seem to have read or come across a few books recently that deal with poets and poetry, and their role – or non-role – in our lives.

  9. Pingback: Richard Flanagan wins the Booker Prize 2014! | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  10. I finished the book this past week and loved it – definitely one of my top 10 for the year. And I was sooo glad it won the Booker (but I haven’t read the other short-listers so that might not be entirely disingenuous.) I usually hate war stories but this was so deeply personal from the pov of the characters and it was based on historical events that I had to read it – in fact, that’s where I got hooked because love stories are also usually off my radar.

    But I knew I liked Flanagan’s work because of Gould’s Book of Fish so I was more than glad to give it a try. I was overwhelmed and couldn’t even really start another book for a day or so afterwards! How can you follow that?

    Thanks for the memory of a great book, Sue! 🙂

    • Glad to be of service Bekah. I think it will be one of my top reads too. I’m so glad you liked it after your initial uncertainty. I know what you mean about its impact. This review took me about 5 days to write. Many reviews take hours but days is rare!

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  12. I think you did a marvelous job of writing about this book. I was so overcome by its complexity, its despair and simultaneous hope, the themes of love intertwined with war, that I wrote my thoughts rather quickly. There is, too, the fear of spoiling some surprises by revealing some of the most touching parts. (For example, how I wanted to talk of the Greek owner of the fish and chips shop, who received and welcomed the men who came to apologize for their destruction. The graciousness with which he helped to heal them showed such courage in the face of losing his only son during the war. He said something about how if we welcome each person, they leave happier than when they came to us, we have done a good thing. And perhaps for me, this sums up one of the most beautiful lessons Flanagan taught.)

    • Thanks Bellezza. I agree that it was hard to write about, and I liked your approach too. I agree too about not wanting to give too much away. That’s always the challenge isn’t it? That Greek restaurant scene was wonderful – such warmth and generosity when he could have reacted completely differently. I love that Flanagan conceived such a scene.

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  14. Just finished reading the book, and came back to read your views. My head is still spinning with all that I have understood as well as the immensity of what I will have surely missed. I’ll be reading it again sometime

    • Thanks Jane for coming back and commenting. It certainly is a book that can leave your head spinning. I agree that it’s a book that’s ripe for re-reading: it’s so grand in conception that most of we readers couldn’t possibly capture it all in one read, could we?

  15. On the front cover of this book in large letters it says ” devastatingly beautiful”
    This has to be the most inaccurate description of a book I’ve ever seen.
    The author spends about 300 pages describing in sadistic detail Japaneses cruelty inflicted on the POW’s.
    By the end my only sorrow was that the Americans only had 2 two atom bombs.
    I wish they’d had a dozen.
    How anyone can describe this unpleasant tale as beautiful is beyond me.

    • Thanks Dick … I guess it’s all in how you define beauty? I think you can find beauty in even the ugliest things, such as here the love, spirit, compassion. But, I’m not sure I’d call the book “devastatingly beautiful” all the same.

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