Book Review: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

 narrow roadSynopsis

Richard Flanagan’s story — of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor haunted by a love affair with his uncle’s wife — journeys from the caves of Tasmanian trappers in the early twentieth century to a crumbling pre-war beachside hotel, from a Thai jungle prison to a Japanese snow festival, from the Changi gallows to a chance meeting of lovers on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Taking its title from 17th-century haiku poet Basho’s travel journal, The Narrow Road To The Deep North is about the impossibility of love. At its heart is one day in a Japanese slave labour camp in August 1943. As the day builds to its horrific climax, Dorrigo Evans battles and fails in his quest to save the lives of his fellow POWs, a man is killed for no reason, and a love story unfolds.

 Review (no spoilers, just a few beautiful quotes)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan was our Book Club’s book of the month. At first I was intimidated by the book so much that I waited until the final week before review to read it.

My biggest challenge with this book was the timelines. There is a lot of back and forth. One chapter the main character, Dorrigo Evans, is in his 70s then mid chapter he is again 4 years old and then 20 years old all in one chapter. The narration moves from different timelines, countries, alternating narrators and so forth. The protagonist seems to jump from one woman’s bed to the next one. That kept throwing me off. I am used to reading books with a different kind of flow and sequential occurrence of events.

During our book club meeting, Linda, one of the members explained that the flow of events reflects the working of a human mind. It is natural for humans to think that way. One minute you start thinking about the kids, the book that you want to read then you remember something else. She thought that Flanagan used this technique to express the Dorrigo’s thought process as naturally as possible. This gave me a new perspective into the book.

Once I got used to the mixed timeline, I was sucked into the story, Richard Flanagan writes so well. The protagonist, Dorrigo loved books and so there were a number of beautiful quotes that would resonate with any reader.

“A good book … leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul.”
Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North

“He believed books had an aura that protected him, that without one beside him he would die. He happily slept without women. He never slept without a book.”
Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan is written in such raw language that successfully depicted the horrors of war. The description of the camps and treatment of Prisoners of War (POWs) were definitely heartbreaking. The effect of war on men was devastating.

POWs_Burma_Thai_RRThe story revolves around the construction of the Thai- Burma railway construction and the experience of the Australian soldiers held as prisoners by the Japanese. The soldiers were forced to construct the railway. Dorrigo who was a doctor at the camp narrates of the harrowing experiences of the POWs. There are heartbreaking tales of starvation, illnesses such as cholera, deaths and just unimaginable torture.

Image of POWs at the Burma railway construction

At the background of the POWs struggles, there is also a narrative of a love story. Dorrigo falls in love during the war. His love for literature was also remarkable. This added to the beauty of the narration.

“There are words and words and none mean anything. And then one sentence means everything.”
Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is not the easiest reads. It will require your concentration as a reader. However, once you get through the first 50 pages or so then you will find yourself enjoying the writing even more. It’s a difficult story with heavy themes but at the same time, it’s a story about a man trying to survive an ugly ordeal and fight his own demons. The book surprised me by also giving the Japanese a voice. It focused a lot on the POWs but also gave the perspective of the Japanese who imprisoned them.

The ending of the book is just like the rest of the book. There is no neatness in the wrapping up. I actually thought my book was missing some pages but no, that was it. It ended just like it began. However, I thought it was a befitting ending. I gave this book 4 stars and recommend it to fans of literature and especially historical fiction.

Below are two quotes that my book club really liked and took some time to discuss.

“Virtue was vanity dressed up and waiting for applause.”
Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North

“He loved his family. But he was not proud of them. Their principal achievement was survival. It would take him a lifetime to appreciate what an achievement that was.”
Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North


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