The Narrow Road to the Deep North

by Richard Flanagan

Hardcover, 2014

Call number

FIC FLA

Collection

Genres

Publication

Knopf (2014), Edition: First Edition ~1st Printing, 352 pages

Description

"A novel of love and war that traces the life of one man--an Australian surgeon--from a prisoner-of-war camp on the Thai-Burma Death Railway during World War II, up to the present"--

Media reviews

This novel would have been far more powerful and coherent if Amy were excised from the story. It is the story of Dorrigo, as one man among many P.O.W.’s in the Asian jungle, that is the beating heart of this book: an excruciating, terrifying, life-altering story that is an indelible fictional testament to the prisoners there. Taken by themselves, these chapters create a slim, compelling story: Odysseus’s perseverance through a bloody war and his return home at last to Penelope (in this case, Ella) and his efforts, like his fellow soldiers’, to see if he can put the horrors and suffering of war in the rearview mirror, and somehow construct a fulfilling Act II to a broken life.

Library's review

You need to be patient with parts of this book (I admit I wasn't always). It can seem tedious in its long passaged descriptions of a potentially fleeting romance and then the long slogs through prisoner of war slave labor camps (think of a beyond gritty and horrendous version of Bridge Over The River Kwai), but it provides the groundwork for the final pages that are so powerful (I admit I was in tears). (Brian)… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member lauralkeet
For an instant he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilisations it created, greater than any god man worshipped, for it was the only true god. It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal. For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boot and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence.

If you’ve seen the film, Bridge over the River Kwai, you’ve seen one account of the Thai-Burma Death Railway. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is another, and is both far more graphic and moving. In 1943, Dorrigo Evans is a doctor in a Japanese POW camp. Every day he has to determine which men are most fit to work on the railway, and by “most fit” I mean “least sick.” The camp is rife with cholera, malaria, and starvation, and many prisoners are also suffering from injuries sustained by their captors. Deaths are routine, and even become predictable as symptoms present themselves.

Early in the novel, Richard Evans shows us some of Dorrigo’s life both before and after the war. When Dorrigo’s unit shipped off, he was both engaged to be married, and engaged in an intense affair with his uncle’s wife. Frankly, I didn’t like Dorrigo much, because Evans had already described a series of extramarital affairs later in Dorrigo’s life, and he struck me as callous and uncaring. But I was wrong. Pre-war, Dorrigo was young, passionate, and confused. He distinguished himself during the war, but like so many young men was left with emotional scars that never completely healed. His post-war life as a serial womanizer was idyllic compared to the fates of both comrades and captors, and I ended up quite sympathetic towards him.

While The Narrow Road to the Deep North is predominantly about the war, the novel moves forwards and backwards in time, like an artist shading areas surrounding the subject of a painting. Evans also dropped small details into the narrative which seemed unimportant initially, but later made me stop and re-think everything I’d just read. The writing and overall structure are brilliant, and I would be happy to see this novel with the 2014 Booker Prize.… (more)
LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
I'm not a big fan of war stories. Fortunately, Richard Flanagan's book is much more than a war story. It's hard to explain exactly what it is. It follows the life of Dorrigo Evans, a poor boy from a large family growing up in Tasmania, who does well enough in school to be sent for further education, eventually becoming a doctor, just in time for the start of WWII. He falls in love with a girl from a good family, although it's more that he's taken with the family's social standing, and he then really falls in love with an unsuitable woman. He is a POW in a Japanese camp sent to build a railroad through Thailand, where he ends up as the ranking officer, fighting to keep up the morale of his men and to keep as many alive as possible. And then there's the rest of his life, which is haunted by the war's aftermath, with the memories growing more vivid as he ages, and his own personal failing well hidden behind his successful career as a doctor and reputation as a war hero. But The Narrow Road to the Deep North also follows the lives of a few of his fellow prisoners and guards, giving greater depth to the story. Evans isn't even the main focus of the portion set in the camp, but rather the people surrounding Darky Gardiner, an endlessly inventive prisoner who is able to obtain/steal almost anything and whose own courage and grit inspire and enrage his fellow soldiers. There's a love story here, as well, as Evans survives by remembering a brief affair and planning to return to her.

This is a complex and nuanced story, very well-told. It's a worthy Booker winner, examining memory and guilt, with a look at how both the perpetrators and victims of atrocity learn to live with their pasts.
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LibraryThing member jnwelch
The Narrow Road to the Deep North knocked me over, a compelling page turner from first page to the last. A finalist for the Man Booker Prize, it features Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor who survives a horrific Japanese WWII prisoner of war camp, and ends up beloved by his fellow campmates. The book's title is ironically that of a serene journal by famed Japanese haiku poet Basho.

The Japanese camp officers are determined that these POW's will construct a railway from Thailand to Burma, and the urgency is a matter of both strategic necessity and national pride for the Japanese officers. Illness and death are minor issues compared to the importance of its completion. Reportedly, the author's late father was a survivor of this real life nightmare that took 12,000 lives. For those who know "The Bridge Over the River Kwai", this makes for quite a contrast. "The path to survival was never to give up on the small things."

The story also covers Dorrigo's life before and after, including the great love of his life, a woman married to his uncle. As those around him celebrate him, he's skeptical and cynical, believing he is not who they think he is (despite all evidence to the contrary), and having difficulty fully connecting to the post-war world. “Virtue was vanity dressed up and waiting for applause.” He loves books, and never is without one. “A good book, he had concluded, leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul. Such books were for him rare and, as he aged, rarer. Still he searched, one more Ithaca for which he was forever bound.”

Flanagan has a remarkable ability to bring to life a wide variety of characters, from ever-optimistic Darkie Gardiner, who always manages to barter for or filch small luxuries, to the love of his life Amy, a stymied woman in a small Australian town who is as amazed by their mutual attraction as he is. There's a wonderful scene in which a Greek tavern owner wants only to thank the survivors. “They talked about fishing, food, winds and stonework; about growing tomatoes, keeping poultry and roasting lamb, catching crayfish and scallops; telling tales, jokes; the meaning of their stories nothing, the drift of them everything; the brittle and beautiful dream itself.”

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member wellsie
This novel has as its heart and soul a male character called Dorrigo Evans who becomes the surgeon and commanding officer at a Japanese POW camp of Australian soldiers. Dorrigo is not a particularly likeable chap. He reminded me of the protagonist of Salter’s All That Is. A male from the old school, egotistically incapable of love who self-servingly dramatises feeling rather than succumbs to it. Feeling for him is a kind of armour he employs to protect himself from his burrowed sense of his own shortcomings – most notably his inability to love his wife and children. He is haunted (though not sustained) by his love for his uncle’s young wife, Amy. To my mind the relentlessly overwritten character of Dorrigo was what let this novel down. Apparently this was Flanagan telling his own father’s story so maybe put all the overwriting down to the admirable attempt of a son to do his father justice – though, ironically, for me it had the opposite effect.
Okay. It started off really well and I was sure I was going to love this novel until Flanagan started writing about sexual passion. All of a sudden, he began to read like a frustrated older man working up into a firework frenzy the lost passions of his youth - his rather self-consciously epic tone suddenly striking a galore of false notes. And from then on I was continually tripped by the constant wheezing and straining for high epic grandeur which repeatedly threw Flanagan’s voice out of tune. The Narrow Road does not have the effortless control of say previous Booker winner Hilary Mantel’s two Cromwell novels. He’s trying way too hard to write an epic (the awful film Australia sprang to mind for which Flanagan wrote the script). But I think this also comes down to Flanagan’s shortcomings as a dramatist. More often than not highly charged language replaces characterisation and as a result empathy with characters is surrendered. Take this for example - “To hold a gesture, a smell, a smile was to cast it as one fixed thing, a plaster death mask, which as soon as it was touched crumbled in his fingers back into dust.” What the hell does that mean? Flanagan won the worst sex award; I’d nominate him here for the most overblown and absurd account of the act of memory.
His insistence on the epic sweep of his novel is also evident in the relentless cataloguing of horrors. The problem is the horrors take precedence over the individuals they’re happening to. The beating of one man, already on his last legs, lasts four pages and becomes boring before it becomes preposterous. Later we’re told how Japanese surgeons performed autopsies on living American prisoners though this is an historical detail that feels shovelled gratuitously into the narrative for more shock horror. Just as he strains in his love scenes so too does Flanagan strain when trying to evoke the horror. As I said, Flanagan isn’t a great dramatist. He’s much better at analysis. The author’s dispassionate insights are often the most memorable passages of the book, the philosophical insights of preceding drama. Like this - “He grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror… the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boot and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence. Violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilisations it created."

And the best characters, oddly, were the Japanese officers and guards.
Flanagan shows us how the “Japanese spirit”, the Emperor’s will takes hold of the psyche of these men and replaces the circuitry of personal morality. A brilliant scene is when Colonel Koto learns how to cut off heads with his sword. The alienation from his humanity brilliantly evoked. Another memorable passage is the last night of the Korean guard before his execution for class B war crimes when he does a brilliant job of taking us inside the heart and soul of a condemned simple man who was doing nothing but obeying orders. This is a novel about ordinary men given experience they have no way of understanding or coming to terms with.
Flanagan is cleverer at showing the gifts to be had from war than the horror. Captures brilliantly the sense that the war experience remains pivotal to the life of these men and in many ways the most redeeming feature of their lives. The horror of war has been done many times; the redemptive humanising gifts of war less so and this, for me, is where Flanagan excels.

The women in this novel are insipid. Outside of the war, the novel’s most important character is Amy. “As a meteorite strike long ago explains the large lake now, so Amy’s absence shaped everything, even when – and sometimes most particularly when – he wasn’t thinking of her.” But here we have another problem. This isn’t about Amy; it’s a man seeking to convince himself his feeling is grandiose. Amy is unbelievable as a living breathing woman. She’s a man’s wet dream, even – especially - when Flanagan takes us inside her feeling. Flanagan even replicates some of Dorrigo’s feelings in her. So when Dorrigo can’t stand the physical proximity of Amy, Amy later can’t stand the physical proximity of Dorrigo. Amy is male wish fulfilment. Made clear when we later find out she has supposedly spent her life pining away for Dorrigo – a stance completely at odds with her pragmatic character (initially she married a much older man she didn’t love for the physical comforts he could provide so how idealistic is Amy really?). I never believed in Amy as anything but a male projection.

This isn’t by any means a bad novel but I find it hard to believe there weren’t half a dozen more deserving novels for the Booker prize. I’m soon to read The Bone Clocks, All the Light We Cannot See and Zone of Interest and I’ll be amazed if all three aren’t more worthy winners.
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LibraryThing member Limelite
Rarely do books so rich and harsh and completely filled with life when they are about death come into a reader's hands. Seldom do novels evoke passion for life so quietly and fully when the protagonist is a self-characterized sham and fake who experiences a single brief period of passion that consumes him. And never have I read a novel that so ironically and thoroughly explores what is a good man and what is a bad man than this one about the Australian surgeon and POW, Dorrigo Evans, and his Japanese camp commander with the poet's soul, Major Nakamura.

This book shares a quality with another superb novel also by a writer from "Down Under" and also a Booker Prize awardee. I refer to The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. Their common quality is that they are too grand in scope and scale to submit to being reviewed. Only discussion far into the night and essays that take weeks to write are fit arenas for their consideration. They are the kinds of reads serious readers long for -- the ones that sweep you away in the current and tide of plot, characterization, setting, theme, and every other element of fiction so powerfully presented that by the end the reader is unable to truly emerge from them and shed their pull on her imagination.

These are not books that linger in the memory; they are books that overcome and inhabit your very being and are integral parts of life as you've lived it. They are impossible to forget. So far, for this reader, the literary century belongs to the writers of "Australazea."
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LibraryThing member SandyHogarth
After the fall of Singapore in WW2 9,000 Australian POWs were sent to to work on the death railway to fulfill Japan’s dream of taking India through Burma. This is a detailed and tough report of part of that, replete with humanity, humour, indifference and extreme brutality. And much more. There was sickness, rain, endless rain and days built like a scream that never ended, starvation and the dead. And loyalty and mateship and love.

Among the Japanese there is Colonel Kota who every few weeks found a prisoner with a neck he fancied. He would make him dig his grave first. ‘That’s all I see of people now. Their necks. And Major Nakamura who survives the war on shabu and who beat a POW for showing insufficient enthusiasm when washing his superior’s underwear. And the Korean Choi Sang-min who was tried and sentenced to death after the war, and dies thinking about the fifty yen in pay that he was owed. ‘The crashing noise of the trapdoor slams down. Stop, he wanted to yell. What about my fifty.’

And the guilt remorse and fear, years later, for both sides.

Dorrigo Evans did not believe in virtue, rather, the passing nature of everything. With Ella, whom he does not love, his marriage is a profound solitude. It is love for Amy, his uncle’s young wife that lights up the novel. ‘He had stolen light from the sun and fallen to earth.’ And ‘He had thought her dead. But now he finally understood; it was she who had loved and he who had died.’

It is more than a book about war and brutality and endurance, although the writing there is powerful. The writing is breathtaking: poetic, powerful, insightful in its understanding of ‘the strange, terrible, neverendingness of human beings’. I’ve rarely read a more powerful account of what it means to be human, to survive adversity and to love. ‘One man’s feeling is not always equal to all that life is. Sometimes it is not equal to anything much at all.
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LibraryThing member EBT1002
Not for the faint of heart, this is the story of Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans. Well, it's really so much more than that. It's the story of the Thai-Burma Death Railway during WWII, the unfathomable treatment of the POWs who were forced to build that railway, and of the lives of Dorrigo and others who were there. Importantly, this is not just the story of the POWs. What is most incredible about Flanagan's masterful writing is that he also tells, in small but compassionate ways, the stories of some of the Japanese guards who brutalized, starved, and in some instances murdered the prisoners. It's also a love story as Dorrigo's brief but passionate love affair with his uncle's wife weaves through his memories. Flanagan portrays this affair with a keen and realistic eye, portraying the idealization of lost love with neither sentiment nor contempt.

Flanagan is not providing us with an optimistic view of humankind or of the meaning of our existence. There were moments when his writing simply took my breath out of me, led me to briefly set the book aside and just stare out the window, resonating so deeply with his prose:

"For an instant he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than civilizations it created, greater than any god man worshipped, for it was the only true god. It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal. For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boot and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence."

And yet, somehow, Flanagan communicates solace in the fact that "The world is. It just is." Meaning is not the point. Existence is.

Flanagan's prose is beautiful without going over the top and his integration of haiku by Issa, Basho, and Buson is pitch-perfect and moving. These are new poets for me and I will be seeking them out, especially Issa. Some have complained that Flanagan's novel is too wordy. In the last hundred pages or so, there were moments when I did feel like he was having a hard time trusting that his story was sufficient and that he could leave some gaps for the reader to fill. But apart from that small quibble, I say take a deep breath, steel yourself a bit, and dig in. This is a novel not to be missed.
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LibraryThing member zarasecker18
WOW!!! What a book!

* it’s moving yet sensitive;
* it’s raw with a no-holds bar attitude;
* it’s gruesome yet gripping;
* it sends you on a emotional roller-coaster ride yet somehow you can’t bring yourself to stop reading it even if you wanted to;
* it reminds me of The Memory Room;
* the lack of speech marks somehow adds to the story - it’s like a reflection spanning many years;
* it’s a story of contradictions - hopelessness yet they clung to routines with great fervour always hoping they’ll make it out alive even though specifically expressed;
* it’s book that trying to describe it doesn’t do it justice - it needs to be experienced.

This book leaves the reader with so many questions:

1. How can humans treat fellow humans how the Japanese treated these POWs?
2. How can the Japanese (not sure if this is the case today) value life with such contempt and live with themselves?
3. Am I putting an Australian understanding of the value of life onto a culture that doesn’t share this belief?
4. How would I behave in the same situation?
5. Would I stand up to the Japanese or would I do what Dorrigo and others did and stand by and let the treatment that was meted out on the soldiers to continue? Would this make me as bad as the Japanese or do the normal rules of life not apply in a war situation?

This book tears at the heartstrings. I cried when Marco refused to take payment for the damage they did to the shop window and the fish, not because I mourned the scene but because this gesture of Marco’s showed a level of understanding that can only be shared between people who have experienced similar situations. This was further confirmed by his comment “it is good to eat”. This one statement held the rawest of truth and expressed so much more.

This book is an emotional roller-coaster ride which has a way of getting under your skin before you realise that it has done. I found I had to take a breather from the rawness and horror of the railway men’s plight - it was almost too painful to bear. It was at times ripping me apart.

Some of the characters:

Dorrigo and Amy - The Dorrigo and Amy scene I didn’t feel added to the story very much and I was glad when they didn’t get back together. This book was not about, dare I say, frilly endings but rather about the harshness of something that belies all logic and decent humanity.

It show-cased how life is never the same after war for all those who were affected by it, but it also showed how easy it is to live in, and for, what could have been (i.e. Dorrigo essentially stopped living - or living a lie perhaps - because Amy wasn’t a part of his life anymore). Almost like Ella was second prize and yet she was exactly what he needed to continue living post the railway nightmare.

Japanese soldiers and Nakamura - I found myself wanting to hate the Japanese soldiers & Nakamura for what they were doing to the Aussie POWs, instead I found I was unable to because I realised that they were as much victims of their superiors as the POWs were of them. They were all puppets on a string.

Summing up:
It showed how it is possible for humans to perform the most heinous attrocities yet somehow still manage to block out the severity of what they’re doing - probably because if they didn’t they would not be able to cope.
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LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
Surgeon Dorrigo Evans can only embrace the absurdity of life and death and plunge on quixotically toward the windmills as his world collapses in the stifling heat and despair of a Japanese POW camp in Burma. The mad dash to complete The Line — the railroad that the Japanese high command have decreed must be built through jungle, rock, and swamp — and the forced labour or slavery of the Australian prisoners will be the end of them all, or nearly all of them. And even years later, as the few who got out alive look back the realization is keen that none of them, not one, really did make it out alive. Dorrigo, known to the troops as the Big Fella, does what he can to spare his men some of the indignities of their situation, though the gangrenous amputations higher and higher up one patient’s leg vividly encapsulate the diminishing returns for both Dorrigo and his Australian compatriots. For some, death will come as a welcome release, while for others it will not come soon enough.

This is harrowing stuff. Difficult to even read about let alone appreciate. Inevitably the telling probably lets us off the hook, if only because when it gets too much we can set the book aside for a time. And equally inevitably it sets all of the other parts of this novel — that which comes before and that which comes after — in pale relief. Not even the supposedly earth-shaking love between Dorrigo and Amy can hold a candle to the horrors of the POW camp. Indeed, ordinary things like love and family and children and careers just seem so banal in comparison. It’s both a problem in the lives of the men who have gone through such an experience and a problem for a novel such as this which attempts to encompass both.

The writing here is lyrical as befits a work peppered with poetry. Both Tennyson and Basho loom large as many of the senior officers, Dorrigo included, are cultured men, one way or another. It is both shocking and dismaying that that culture has so little practical impact. Poetry is spouted by both those perpetrating and those enduring acts of cruelty. And we are left without a safe port in this. Nowhere to turn and no one to turn to as redemptive or especially exemplary. It seems as though even Flanagan himself must surely have sunk into despair at points as he wrote. And to the extent that the novel meets this nihilism head on, it is indeed as superb as its cover quotes suggest. That it fails to do so throughout is perhaps only to be expected. It is, after all, a narrow road.

Gently recommended.
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LibraryThing member VivienneR
Japan forced hundreds of thousands of WWII POWs and South Asian workers to build the Burma death railway. The main part of this story describes in graphic detail what Australian POWs endured, said to be a tribute to the author's father who was one of them. Although Dorrigo Evans, a serial womanizer pre-war and post-war, was hardly a credit to the memory of Flanagan senior. Maybe the personal link caused Flanagan to lose focus, creating a book that I found to be overdone, over-written, with too much philosophizing - a book that strives too hard to be profound. Cliché, repetitive, and with passages that sound good but are meaningless: "You could go to war with the world, but the world would always win."… (more)
LibraryThing member writestuff
In this way, thought Nakamura, the Japanese spirit is now itself the railway, and the railway the Japanese spirit, our narrow road to the deep north, helping to take the beauty and wisdom of Basho to the larger world. - from The Narrow Road to the Deep North, page 94 –

It is August of 1943 along the Thai-Burma Death Railway. Australian doctor Dorrigo Evans and his comrades are struggling each and every day to survive as POWs in a Japanese camp. They face starvation, daily beatings, illness, monsoons, mud…and the never-ending toil to complete the great railroad which the Japanese Emperor desires. Dorrigo lives for his men, he fights for their survival, and mourns their deaths. He tries to banish his memories of his uncle’s wife – a woman who enchanted him, loved him, and changed his world.

How does anyone survive the tortures of being a prisoner of war? That question kept repeating itself to me as I read and tried to find the meaning hidden behind the transcendent prose of Richard Flannagan.

They are survivors of grim, pinched decades who have been left with this irreducible minimum: a belief in each other, a belief that they cleave to only more strongly when death comes. For if the living let go of the dead, their own life ceases to matter. The fact of their own survival somehow demands that they are one, now and forever. - from The Narrow Road to the Deep North, page 155 -

This nonlinear novel takes the reader from the hot, wet jungle of Burma to Australia years after the war. It explores death, the connection between humans in the face of adversity, evil, goodness, guilt and remorse…and the power of love.

Without love, what was the world? Just objects, things, light, darkness. - from The Narrow Road to the Deep North, page 291 -

This is a brutal novel and one that is not for the faint of heart. Flannagan’s prose is searing, devastating, and measured. There is a good deal of brutality and violence. The suffering of the POWs is revealed in affecting language that made it hard for me to fall asleep at night.

The main character – Dorrigo – at first seems unlikeable, but by the end of the book, it is clear his heart is wholly human: flawed, proud, loving, resentful. He is a complex man who is forever changed by his experiences. In fact, the Japanese guards are also portrayed as not all evil – they have families, they love, they fear. If it were Flannagan’s desire to develop humanity within his characters, even those who commit unspeakable acts, he has succeeded.

One message that the novel seems to impart is that of the pointlessness of war. The Thai-Burma Death Railway was constructed in 1942-43 as a means for the Japanese to supply forces in Burma while bypassing the sea routes that made them vulnerable to attack. More than 12,000 allied troops being held captive, died during the railway’s construction…including 2700 Australians. Flannagan reflects on the railway post-war:

And of that colossal ruin, boundless and buried, the lone and level jungle stretched far away. Of imperial dreams and dead men, all that remained was long grass. - from The Narrow Road to the Deep North, page 227 -

The Narrow Road to the Deep North captured the 2014 Man Booker Prize and I believe it was worthy of this award. While it is difficult reading on an emotional level, the prose is deeply moving and offers a look into the human spirit. Basho’s literary classic, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, suggests: “every day is a journey, and the journey itself home.” Flannagan’s novel, which borrowed Basho’s title, is about the journey of one man…and his search for “home.” Readers who are not squeamish and who enjoy literary fiction, will want to put this one on their reading list.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member tututhefirst
This won the Man Book Prize this year, and it well deserves the honor. Flanagan's portrayal of Australian, Japanese, and Korean combatants involved in the building of the Siam-Burma railway during World War II (some as POWs, some as their cruel guards and tormenters) is a stunning work that manages to revolt us with its sickening detail about the treatment these POWs suffered while at the same time it delves into the psyches of all the participants, giving us not excuses, but explanations and even glimpses of redemptive behavior after the war. Compelling, disgusting, beautiful, violent and brutal. A must read.… (more)
LibraryThing member Vivl
This is the second novel I have read by Richard Flanagan and they've both been terribly sad and terribly beautiful. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is hard and luminous, like a tear-drop pearl pendant. To call it stunning would not be hyperbole. Flanagan has a capacity, shared with fellow Australian writer David Malouf, to bring sympathy and insight to every (beautifully distinct, graphically "brought to life") character, no matter how superficially unpleasant ('Rooster', for example, and, of course, the various Japanese military personnel.) Here he combines that talent with a perfectly plotted, deeply thoughtful exploration of an unspeakably awful period in the history of Australia, and of Japan. In addition, he informs: the research he has done is apparent but that in no way impedes the fiction; we don't end up reading a textbook or a history, as such. Aside from drawing upon his recently deceased father's experiences as a prisoner of war under the Japanese, Flanagan interviewed Japanese ex-WWII guards/army personnel as well as Australian ex-diggers, enabling him to provide a well-rounded, multi-dimensioned reflection on the horror that was the Burma Railway. This is meditative, heartbreaking magic, and a worthy Booker winner.… (more)
LibraryThing member thorold
Writing about great atrocities, especially when the atrocity is well-known and the experience is described at second-hand, can be a tricky business - it's all too easy for a writer to employ cheap tricks to milk our emotions without actually saying anything that changes the way we think about the events described. And of course we all know (in outline) about the Burma death railway, and given the number of people caught up in World War II, it's not unlikely that we've met someone who was a prisoner of the Japanese "and has not been the same since" (or heard of husbands and sons who never came back). Whilst the survivors I've met hardly ever spoke directly about what had happened to them, you only needed to see the way they reacted to a casual comment about the excellence of Japanese cars or hifi systems to get an idea of the impact the experience had on them.

Which is all a way of saying that Flanagan has to do something special and unexpected to make it worth our while reading this book. And he does, in several different, complementary ways. We get the inevitable vivid and painful descriptions of atrocities, but they are carefully unemotional and objective, obviously rooted in Flanagan's research, focussing on very specific physical things - hunger, injuries, the symptoms of disease - and on the social and cultural mismatch between the Australian prisoners and the Japanese guards. Unlike most writers of PoW stories, Flanagan takes viewpoint characters from both sides, and tries to show us why the Japanese act in the ways they do, and drill down into how a love of poetry can be reconciled with arbitrary beatings and decapitations, and with forcing people to work under conditions where around 20% of the POW workforce (and perhaps 50% of the Asian slave-workers) died in the course of 1942-3. We don't quite get to engage sympathetically with Major Nakamura and Colonel Kota, but we do get at least a thought-provoking glimmer of what the railway project might have looked like to them.

The other major thing that Flanagan does is to put the experience of 1942-3 in the context of his characters' whole lives. What happens when a relatively ordinary person, who has found an ability in himself to respond extraordinarily to an extraordinary situation, returns to "normal life", where such demands don't exist? And what if the experience that you think is defining for your whole life is something completely different from that episode of heroism/war-crimes? This is again risky for Flanagan, because his main Australian character, Dorrigo Evans, tends to act in unattractive ways at home (he's a serial philanderer, and only moderately competent as a surgeon), and we have to spend a good deal of time with him. But he's entirely human: the recurrent references to Tennyson's Ulysses give him a sense of direction we can identify with despite all the motel room adultery, the harping on a lost pre-war love, and the awkward duty-visits to ex-comrades and their widows.

A difficult and challenging book, which perhaps doesn't always hit exactly the note it is aiming for, but it does consistently get close enough to compel you to stay with it despite the occasional dull passage. Very powerful writing in the set-piece scenes, necessary context elsewhere.
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LibraryThing member browner56
What actions or character traits define a “good” person? Are individuals who commit depraved acts in the pursuit of noble causes warranted in their behavior? What makes someone a hero? What does it mean to truly love someone? When, if ever, is dishonesty in the name of love justified? In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, the author explores these themes and much, much more. Nominally structured as the life story of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor who finds himself as the senior officer of a group of POWs in a Japanese prison camp during World War II, the book is actually far more nuanced than a straightforward character study and exposes the reader to some of the most graphic depictions of war in modern literature.

In fact, the best parts of the book—if that is even an appropriate way to put it—occur in the Siamese jungle as the Allied prisoners are compelled to provide slave labor to build a railroad to Burma that will fulfill the desire of Japan’s emperor. The descriptions of the conditions in which the prisoners live and work, as well as how they are treated by their captors, are truly harrowing. Flanagan is particularly adept at capturing the subtleties of the relationships between the prisoners themselves and the growing sense of resignation and futility they feel as they are literally worked to death in pursuit of a goal that makes no sense to anyone but the Japanese commanders. A vignette that comes much later in the book involving Evans rescuing his family from a raging forest fire underscores Flanagan’s talent for writing compelling action set pieces. It is in these episodes, along with the Japanese camp commander’s post-war saga, that the author’s exploration of good versus evil shines the most.

On the other hand, there are significant parts of the novel that did not work nearly as well. Most notably, the character of Dorrigo, the ostensible protagonist, comes off as wooden, unconvincing, and extremely unlikeable. Although we are told of his love for Amy that shapes his relationships with all other women—including his own wife—for the rest of his life, there is very little evidence of the depth and intensity of that love beyond a brief period in which they engage in a passionate, illicit affair. The fact that the two never try to find one another after the war was completely implausible, despite the author’s unconvincing explanation of the duplicity they faced. Further, the unlikely connection that is revealed very late in the story between Evans and one of the fellow prisoners under his watch was completely gratuitous and an extremely false note in an otherwise well-crafted tale. Overall, then, I enjoyed reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North, but my recommendation is not without reservations.… (more)
LibraryThing member labdaddy4
This was a difficult book to read. I tend to devour books about WWII - fiction as well as non-fiction - but this was tough. Violence, death, torture, even war crimes do not normally cause me to cringe when reading about them - this book got to me. I got actually nauseated reading much of the passages about life in a Japanese prisoner-of-war/work camp. The brutality and numbness toward it was difficult to say the least.
The author has a very descriptive style and often too "wordy" for my taste, but his depth of detail was amazing. The book is a tightly woven tale of a cluster of characters spanning time from before WWII until the 1960's. I found it very informative to read his interpretation of the Japanese mindset regarding duty, honor, and warfare. The "love story" aspect of the book was, to me, as sad as the war's brutality.
I would only recommend this book to someone with a strong stomach.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
This is the 2014 Booker winner and is the 35th such winner I have read. When I finished it I had to conclude that it was an exceptional book, even though as I read i found myself annoyed by the long time spent telling of the principal character's adulterous affair with his uncle's wife, and then the account of the time when he was a prisoner of the Japanese in Siam, forced to have to deal with fiercely cruel Japanese, does not spare the reader from any horror the Australians had to endure as POWs. The account of the events after the war, in Japan and in Australia, are riveting reading and certainly make the book memorable. And may well make the book a classic of its genre.… (more)
LibraryThing member DubaiReader
Ruthlessly brutal.

I was less than impressed by the most recent winner of the Man Booker Prize. It felt more like three books merged into one, with the Australian surgeon, Dorrigo Evans as the thread that linked them together.

The first part was a love story, rather along the lines of Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. The young Dorrigo spots Amy in a book shop and is smitten. She then turns up again as his uncle's wife and a steamy love affair results. This was without doubt the most readable part of the book, although it did resort to some overly flowery 'Bookeresque' language at times.
The middle section was gruesome and seemingly endless. Having recently read Eric Lomax's account of the brutality of the Japanese on the Burma railway, it was distressing to have to suffer with another group of POWs. I really needed to revert to the previous love story for some light relief, but was not permitted to do so.
Finally the story of each character was wound up, one by one. This felt very pedestrian; one chapter per person, be he Japanese, Australian or Korean. How each was affected by the war, mentally scarred, or held accountable for his actions. There was no resolution of the original love story, leaving me wondering what Amy's purpose was in the book.
In my opinion, the best part, and the only section that really had me gripped, was the bush fire at the end.

Flanagan's father endured the brutality of the Burma Railway, a railway that took the lives of thousands of labourers through starvation, illness and ruthless violence. The Japanese had no respect for the prisoners, they felt they should have committed suicide rather than becoming POWs, as the Japanese Emperor would have expected of his soldiers. If there was one thing that I took away with me, it was an understanding of the mindset of the Japanese and the training that allowed them to be so guiltlessly brutal.
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LibraryThing member AmaliaGavea
"Why at the beginning of things is there always light?"

My head is full of a plethora of thoughts that, somehow, need to find their way into a text? Or do they? Probably not. This must be one of the most difficult reviews I have chosen to write and this is not a cliche. It's reality. Difficult because how can one possibly describe the horrors brought about by monsters in one of the darkest eras of History that, sadly seems not too far away or lost in time? Difficult because love and pain and lose are feelings that cannot be easily turned into paragraphs or measured by phrases "this is good", "this is bad". Difficult because no matter how hard I tried, no matter how mesmerizing the writing was at times, this book will not enter my favourites. We failed to form any kind of connection.

Dorrigo Evans is a surgeon in the Australian Army during the nightmare of the Second World War. He and his regiment are now prisoners of war in a Japanese camp in Burma and the plague is quickly descending. So he is needed by friends and enemies alike, because there is a bridge that needs to be built and it won't wait. Dorrigo struggles to keep his men alive, physically and psychologically, and most of all, he tries to preserve his own will to live and not give up. Because he started feeling dead long before he became a POW. His mind travels back in time, to his younger days, and to the event that defined him and defeated him more than any other battle he had ever given. His relationship with Amy, a young woman, his uncle's wife.

"A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else."

Dorrigo is the most complex, interesting character in those pages. He is a kind human being, considerate and brave. He loves with all his heart, he fights to keep his men with him, but he is never happy. He cannot find happiness, he feels that every joy is a fleeting moment for which he is somehow unworthy. There were parts when I felt that Dorrigo had actually fallen victim to a weird notion of self-depreciation, of self-pity. He was broken beyond repair. But why? For whom? For Amy? For himself?

"My disgraceful, wicked heart", thought Amy, " is braver than the world."

It seemed to me that Amy was the driving force of the story. She is definitely a controversial character, but she provides life. When I was reading Amy's POV, I was thinking that Flanagan had reserved the most beautiful language in this novel for her. There is a calmness and a tenderness, a childish spirit that suits Amy, although we somehow feel that the storm is about to break, on many levels. That the underlying terrors will soon become reality. And even though, many may call her "wicked", "selfish" or "manipulative", for me she is the breath of life in the book.

Flanagan provides many points of view. Too many, in my opinion. He divides the stories of the Australian and the Japanese characters almost equally and I found that this made the story significantly slower. I appreciated the Haiku references and the fact that he didn't omit the enemy's voice, creating a highly balanced narration. What I felt as a reader was that these characters weren't interesting enough to turn my mind away from Dorrigo and Amy's fate. As simple as that. They obviously served the purpose of the writer (and I don't dare to presume as to what it was) but they made me lose much of my initial connection to the story. I admit I skimmed quite a few pages of the Japanese chapters. I couldn't bring myself to care for them. In addition, the part of the book set after the end of the war felt slow, flat and melodramatic.

There were two things I deeply appreciated in the novel. First, Flanagan's use of the question of morality was exceptional. What is considered "moral"? What of the feelings that are experienced by all of us and may come in utter contrast with issues like fidelity or bravery or mercy? Especially in times of war when these things cease to matter. The second was the way the horrors of the camp were depicted. I found the chapters harrowing, haunting, raw, but not in any way disgusting or written for the sake of shock value. In fact, a minor issue I had was that there were times when I thought he played it safe, choosing the "easier" road. Sometimes, the situation called for language with more punch, more tension. There have been films and books about the subject that are more nightmarish, more realistic even.

The writing was at times exceptionally poignant and darkly poetic. Other times, I found it verbose, tiresome, melodramatic. Apart from the interactions in the camp, I felt that the dialogue resembled the old 40s films. Now, perhaps my stone -hearted self has taken over (once again...), but in my opinion, dialogue such as this is a bit unrealistic and inconsistent with the powerful themes dealt with in the rest of the novel. Keith and Ella's characters seemed copied out of cliches and I couldn't abide with this.

My journey with this Booker Prize winner started in anticipation and excitement, but somehow, my way fell flat. Yes, this is a special book, beautiful in a disturbing way. However, when I skipped too many pages, when I felt nothing, no connection throughout the story, when I compare it to other war novels, I cannot bring myself to rate it more than 3 stars. Will I recommend it to a friend? Certainly. Do I consider it memorable? Yes. But I do not think this is the best war novel ever written and certainly not one of the best books ever written. It gave me nothing I hadn't read before....
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LibraryThing member rikishiama
I might be the only one, but I didn't love think this was as great as everyone seems to find it. The parts related to the POW camp and the war were very good (and very hard to stomach, frankly), but somehow I didn't find the same passion with how the core love relationship was written. Also, I thought the writer lost his way a bit in the last part of the novel and there were some coincidences that were hard to believe, and incidents included the significance of which I was at a loss to see.… (more)
LibraryThing member TimBazzett
THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH, by Richard Flanagan.

This guy is good. All the praise and critical acclaim this book has garnered? The Man Booker Prize? All of it richly deserved. Perhaps the most richly human and complete look at the POW experience working on the "Death Railway" that has yet been written. Protagonist Dorrigo Evans is a character that will stick with you for a very long time. You learn of his life from beginning to end - as well as his 'inner' life, the mental emotional and spiritual turmoil resulting from his time as the ranking officer of what began as nearly a thousand Australian POWs.

I've read a few other very good books about the construction of this infamous rail line in the steaming, unforgiving jungles of Siam by the Imperial Japanese Army, using coolie slave labor and POWs. Australian Flanagan's version is perhaps the most moving and horrific of them all. But I think it is the way he also tells us, in the most beautiful prose imaginable, "the rest of the story," of not just its principals, but of many of the secondary characters as well, that makes this novel rise above the rest. There was Pierre Boulle's 1952 novel, THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI, magnificently adapted to the screen by David Lean. And there was David Malouf's (also Australian) impressive novel, THE GREAT WORLD. And a lesser-known but very powerful memoir by Englishman Eric Lomax, THE RAILWAY MAN.

The central portion of Flanagan's book, all about the extreme suffering of the POWs under the fanatically patriotic - and meth-addicted - Japanese camp commander, Major Nakamura, and the brutal Korean guard nicknamed the Goanna (and even these two 'monsters' are humanized to a degree in the last, postwar section of the book), is perhaps what sets this book apart and above the others. The descriptions of the starving brutalized men, how they live and die, is very very hard to read. And yet I was also struck by Flanagan's ability to insert, here and there, samples of the darkest sort of ghastly gallows humor. Here's just one, depicting three men, Dorrigo Evans, Bonox Baker and Shugs, carrying a makeshift, too-short stretcher bearing the body of Lenny, who has just died of starvation, cholera and dysentery, from the cholera tent to a funeral pyre site in the jungle -

"As they made their way out of that home of the damned, Lenny's corpse kept slipping down. To stop it falling off the stretcher, they had to roll the corpse over onto its stomach and spreadeagle the scrawny legs so that they hung over the bamboo poles. The shanks were so wasted that the anus protruded obscenely. 'Hope Lenny don't feel a final squirt coming on,' said Shugs, who was bringing up the back of the stretcher."

That final line, I confess, caused me to snort a kind of choked laugh, but with an accompanying kind of horror. The blackest of black humor.

Many readers and critics have noticed a Dantean flavor to Flanagan's novel, and with good reason. But I also thought of Shelley's "Ozymandias" at his description of the postwar decay and ruin of that rail line constructed at a cost of thousands and thousands of lives -

"A few short sections would be cleared by those who thought memory mattered, transformed in time into strangely resurrected, trunkless legs ... And of that colossal ruin, boundless and buried, the lone and level jungle stretched far away. Of imperial dreams and dead men, all that remained was long grass."

I could say more, but most of it's probably already been said. This is just one great book, a magnificent achievement. A haunting masterpiece. My highest recommendation.
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LibraryThing member bg853
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Don't give up on this book if you are having trouble at the start. During the confusing beginning which jumps from old age to childhood to middle age and back again, the author imparts a significant amount of important information. After reading numerous reviews stating that it was worth getting through the beginning; I stuck with it and I am glad I did.

This is a story of loss opportunities, bad decisions and human frailties. At the same time it is a story of courage under difficult and even sometimes horrific circumstances and heroism. It is also a study of the effect the horrors of war have on both those who endure them and those who impose them.

For most of us our knowledge of prisoners of war building the railway through Burma during World War II is limited to watching The Bridge Over the River Kwai. This time we see the story from a closer more personal perspective. We follow Dorrigo Evans as a doctor struggling to keep these prisoners alive and meet some of his fellow prisoners. Following the war we continue to follow Dorrigo but also learn how the war as effected many of the others as well.

Highly recommended. 4*(because of that beginning)
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LibraryThing member DaptoLibrary
Less is more. Where have we heard that before? Well, it was certainly said a few times this month concerning Richard Flanagan’s epic tome, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Even the title is too long, was Anne’s comment!
At close to 500 pages, this combined story of enduring love and futility of war was felt to be well written but, alas, too wordy.
This can be an often occurring theme in our discussions … when does a book lose its impact under the weight of too many words? That is of course within each and every reader’s discretion. In truth, the trick of engaging the reader with just the right amount of information and dialogue is a craft perfected by only a handful of talented writers, so where does this leave Flanagan and his latest offering?
Well, the majority of us did get through this novel and although not enamored by the main character, Dorrigo Evens or by the attempt at romance, there was an overwhelming respect for Flanagan’s personal quest at telling this story. Those of us who heard the author interviewed found it much easier to plough through the pages. His impeccable research and personal motivation added emotional depth that may have been lost to anyone not privy to the conversation.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North (being the Burma Railway) gave a poignant and emotive picture of POWs and their plight, and although many of us have heard and read of this sad history, Flanagan was still able to cleverly, and some agree, perfectly, engross the reader. We also felt including the Japanese perspective may have helped in securing the quality of the read.
Our conversation covered many of the topics any novel of war tends to inspire, but we did find ourselves pondering specifically the philosophy of training killers, Korean and Japanese relations, returning POWs (their strengths and their flaws) and whether Dorrigo was in fact Weary Dunlop! The individual stories wound into prison life gave us all gratification in a place and time where little of such could be found, adding yet another dimension to this story ... a human touch that could only be bound in truth, not in imagination.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is listed for this year’s Miles Franklin Award.
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LibraryThing member gendeg
If the aim of literature is to capture something of the human experience, whether through use of language, imagery, and storytelling, then Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North should be dubbed a classic of the highest order.

Flanagan's book is obliquely about WWII, about a particular corner of that war: imperial Japan's occupation of Burma and the construction of the Thailand-Burma Railway in the 1940s. The central character is 77-year-old Dr. Dorrigo Evans, a veteran of the war and labor camp survivor, whose national renown, public honor, and heroism seem to have led him, anyway, through an otherwise empty and hollow life. When he is asked to put together an introduction to a collection of sketches by another fellow veteran, he starts to remember. The ghosts of the war and captivity come back, and they come back with a vengeance.

What is startling about the book is its narrative structure. Flanagan switches viewpoints and shifts time periods. While we stay with Dorrigo for the most part, we also experience those labor camp years through the viewpoints of the Japanese guards, the perpetrators of the brutal cruelties at those camps, both during and after the war. Perhaps surprisingly it's not one-dimensional malevolence we see. Flanagan doesn't flinch when he shows us these men steeped in a culture of emperor worship, victims in their own way. He doesn't offer a wholesale condemnation or absolution of their actions, and it's a painstakingly nuanced portrait. It's a brave move considering the subject matter and Flanagan's closeness to it (I believe Flanagan's father like Dorrigo Evans was a POW).

There are scenes in this book that bled into my mind and stayed with me for days. People in the camps succumb in myriad violent and horrible ways. Those that manage to survive live on a knife's edge, battling withering conditions: ulcers, cholera, starvation, beatings. And torture, endless torture that make Guantanamo seem like a playground. Dorrigo is eventually put in charge of hundreds of prisoners. The directive is to keep his men alive long enough to keep working on the railroads. It's a horrific position to be in, essentially managing misery and despair. It takes enormous resolve to get through the visceral experience. Dorrigo has to negotiate every day with the Japanese guards and camp leaders, and bargain and cajole with his men to work, to stay alive. How does Dorrigo shore up his resolve in this crucible? How does he keep going despite the enormity and nothingness of it all?

What made this book really shine was that Flanagan chooses not to focus on the epic parts of the war but to lean in close to illuminate the smaller, private moments of that experience. The writing recreates the process of living and survival in such harrowing circumstances, and we are pulled back and forth in the narrative between the immediacy of the moments described and Dorrigo's remembering of them. Much of the labor camp experiences are told through a slipstream of disjointed recollections and flashbacks, the contemporary present mixing with the past in a shaky way. The process of that trauma relived gets imprinted into the main character's daily routines in the present time, and in the greater landscape of his larger world.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North isn't so esoterically fragmented that the storytelling gets overpowered by the writing, but Flanagan does play freely with linearity. The storytelling feels impressionistic, especially in the first fifty pages or so. Things are told out of order. We see glimpses and streaks of a man's life rather than a complete, fluid arc. Something in the present triggers a moment from Dorrigo's past, and suddenly we're transported there. Only our reading and collating of these chains of memories creates a proper narrative. Flanagan's depiction of how we remember our pasts through the lens of creeping age and decrepitude and regret makes this book so much more than the sum of its parts.

While the labor camp experience is the central narrative account, I actually don't think the book is about the war experience exclusively. And in fact, Dorrigo also remembers a great love he had once, a fleeting, doomed affair, which shadows his life as much as the war. When you consider that the book's title, "The Narrow Road to the Deep North," is actually taken from the writings of the 17th century Japanese poet Bashō, Dorrigo's story expands to something more than those two experiences. Digging around, I learned that Bashō's poetic ambitions were to remove all distinctions between subject and object and to cast away the self. Another Japanese poem is referenced in the book, a death poem: "Shisui's poem rolled through Dorrigo Evans' subconscious, a contained void, an endless mystery, lengthless breadth, the great wheel, eternal return: the circle—antithesis of the line." Perhaps, then, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is an exploration of that eternal struggle for Dorrigo and everyone else, a search for meaning, on both sides of the Line.
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LibraryThing member PennyAnne
Such a deserving Booker Prize Winner. I finished this book some time ago now and find myself still thinking about it - the story, the language, the style in which it is written. It's not just a war story, it's not just a love story - it is a story of life and people and the mistakes that are made and the grace that is available for all of us if we allow it. #BookerPrize #RichardFlanagan #NarrowRoad… (more)

Pages

352

ISBN

0385352859 / 9780385352857
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