Richard Flanagan: The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2014)

The Narrow Road To The Deep North

In December I left an overhasty comment on Bellezza’s blog (here). She’d reviewed Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, saying that it was very hard to read. I was about 100 pages into the novel and commented that I didn’t think it was all that bad. Unfortunately, I still had 350 pages to go and those were anything but easy. They were extremely hard and I kept on wondering “Why am I reading this?”. I’m not sure why I thought like that. I’ve seen many movies on POWs, have read more than one book and never had this reaction. It wasn’t even anything new. I was familiar with what the Japanese did to their prisoners. I knew about the vivisection on American soldiers. I just felt that it’s too much. Too graphic. After I finished the book I chatted with Vishy about it and he told me that Claire had written about the book (here), having a similar reaction. She couldn’t even finish it. I’m still not entirely sure why I reacted like this. I just know that I didn’t get anything out of reading this novel. If it hadn’t been for the brittle writing style and the mostly non-linear structure, which I both found very engaging, I would have given up. And I bought a hardback. It’s one of a few rules I try to stick to; if I buy a hardback, I finish it. I think I have to stop buying hardbacks.

The largest part of The Narrow Road to the Deep North tells the story of the surgeon Dorrigo Evans. Before the war he’s engaged to Ella but just before being shipped overseas he meets his uncle’s young wife Amy and falls in love with her. The love affair is intense and passionate and will haunt him all through the war years and even after the war. There’s a reason why they don’t get together at the end of the war and this plot line was the one I liked best because it illustrates so well how sometimes a whole life can take another turn just because of some small element.

The book is divided into several parts, one of which tells about Dorrigo’s time as a prisoner of war on the Burma Death Railway. In this section, like in the sections in the last part, the point of view changes from one Australian prisoner to the next, and from one Japanese officer or guard to the next. The parts told from the prisoner’s point of view are awful. The descriptions of the horrors, the beatings, the wounds, infections, illnesses  . . . they are so detailed and graphic, it’s too much. And the parts told from the point of view of the Japanese are very disturbing. I’ve never read anything as disturbing as that. We are in the mind of monsters who believe they are superior beings, who go on and on about honor and shame, who constantly rationalize their evil deeds and sadism,  and find not only excuses but reasons that make them believe they are “good men”.

On returning to the camp late that afternoon, Colonel Kota gave Nakamura a dressing down, his rage driven by his own shame at having forgotten a haiku and thus having been unable to behead a prisoner—and this in front of a Korean guard. In turn deeply ashamed, the Japanese major found the Korean sergeant whose name he could never remember, slapped him hard a few times, got the name of the prisoner who was apparently—of all things—hiding out in the hospital, and ordered a parade to be called and the prisoner to be punished in front of the assembled POWs.

After the war Dorrigo gets married to Ella, becomes a famous surgeon and turns into a philanderer.

He (Dorrigo after the war) was a lighthouse whose light could not be relit. In his dreams he would hear his mother calling to him from the kitchen: Boy, come here, boy. But when he would go inside it was dark and cold, the kitchen was charred beams and ash and smelt of gas, and no one was home.

In the last part we’re spending a lot of time in the mind of the Japanese war criminal, officer Nakamura. And once again that’s even more disturbing than anything else.

Flanagan’s writing style and the way he structured the first parts of the book made me finish it. It’s his strength of writing vivid scenes and descriptions that made the book worthwhile, but at the smae time these qualities also made it extremely hard to read. It’s debatable how graphic and explicit a novel should be. I think he did the right thing in being this explicit, only, I didn’t want to read it. Not at this time. However, I have other points to criticize. The book is too long. The last part felt as if he wanted to add too much. We didn’t need to read about the vivisections and there was a scene involving a fire, almost at the end, that I found superfluous as well. As if Flanagan didn’t exactly know when and how to end the book.

The brittle, vivid style makes me want to pick up another of his novels. But I wish I hadn’t read this one.

41 thoughts on “Richard Flanagan: The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2014)

  1. I’m so intrigued that you wish you hadn’t read this one. Ironically enough, I was glad I did. (!!) I loved it for the things you mentioned such his writing, the interwoven (nonlinear) plot. But, I also loved it for portraying the raw side of humanity. We disappoint ourselves, we disappoint one another, life is often very, very painful. To me, he was writing about something real, although so violent. But, when is war not? When, in this fallen, hurting world, are we ever safe? That’s what struck me so powerfully.

    • It’s very true what you say, nonethelss the way he chose to write about the horrible thinsg was too much for me. And I was never sure about the Japnaese narrators. He really doesn’t make them sound human. How does he know what it was like to be in the mind of a Japanese officer? I’m not say they didn’t commit atrocious things but did they think like that?

  2. I can perfectly sympathise with your response to this novel. I haven’t read it and don’t intend to because I can react strongly to narrative that is a great deal less visceral and disturbing than this. I think it’s the sort of book that does a great duty by telling it like it was and it’s clearly very powerful. But not for me.

  3. I’ve avoided this one, Caroline, for the reasons you mention–although I know someone who really ‘enjoyed’ the book (if that’s the right word).
    You bring up an interesting point about the graphic content–not that I’ve read this and I won’t–we know it’s true, it happened, but sometimes in fiction there’s a line that’s crossed. Is it because the graphic content becomes too much so that reading becomes repugnant rather than enjoyable? I doubt that you’d pick up a non fiction novel on the topic, right? It would be a gruesome prospect.

    • I don’t want to read a non-fcition book on this. A movie is easier to watch because no matter what they show they camera normally moves quickly but here it’s like the came was stuck on some images.
      IT’s an important book. I can understand why so many “liked2 it but I really didn’t want to read it.

  4. It’s interesting that a novel you wish you hadn’t read would make you want to read other books by the same author. This book doesn’t sound like something I would want to read, but I’ll have to keep Flanagan on my radar.

  5. Interesting review, Caroline. Sorry that you didn’t like the book as much as you had hoped to. But admire you so much for persevering with it and reaching the last page. I don’t know whether I can reach a book with such graphic violence. I didn’t know that the Japanese did a vivisection of American POWs. It is so horrible. I don’t know whether anything like that had happened before in war. Flanagan’s style sounds so interesting though. Hope you enjoy his next book more.

    • It seems that some poeple, even Australians had no idea and because of that this is an important book. I think it was right, he chose this approach but for me it was too horrible.

      • I think I would also find it hard to readl, Caroline. I was in two minds before on whether to pick it up, but I think now, I will stay away from it, atleast for a while. Thanks for your wonderful and frank review.

        • In a way I have to agree with Bellezza’s comment but for some reasons I really found I wasn’t doing myself a favour reading it. I’ve read a few too many war books these past years.

  6. I’ve got this on my pile and I’m almost literally flirting with it. I keep picking it up, reading the blurb and putting it down again! I can see what you mean about something horrific fitting the narrative but being too much to read – I was talking about ‘The Orenda’ today with a colleague to whom I’d recommended it – she said exactly the same- for her the violence was too much in places! I will keep flirting with this but I think it will be a while before I actually pick it up, if at all!

    • On the other had he’s such a gifted writer.
      I’m not sure why I had such a strong reaction. I’ve read other gruesome books. Nonetheless, he did the right thing, I’d say. Didn’t turn it into the type of wartime story that makes you almost wish you’d been there. Those are often so wrong.
      I don’t think I’ll pick up The Orenda.
      I think it’s importnat to know that the first 100pages of the Flanagan are very different from the middle section.

    • I can understand it. I hope it won’t affect you as much. I would never say it’s not good. And it deserves praise but for me it was too nightmarish. And a tad too long.
      I would love to read your thoughts though.

  7. I have felt incredible pressure (self induced) to read this book b/c Richard Flanagan lives here in Hobart Tasmania and the pressure from the media of course here and the bookshops has been intense. He is the home grown boy done good. Our book club did it last July but I couldn’t bring myself to read it b/c of all the news internationally of war crimes happening now. I felt overwhelmed with it all and still do. I even worked with his sister for several years. So it all seems too close.
    I have read Gould’s Book of Fish and the style of that book is absolutely amazing. I can’t even describe it. I loved it as I read it but now still do not know how I feel about it. It is true, he does have a very distinctive style. Many liked Death of a River Guide but have not read it. His books seem claustrophobic to me and I tend to shy away from them. Some people say you need to be native Tasmanian to understand a lot of his finer points and I feel that could be true with much of what he writes in his other novels. An interesting and polarising author for sure. I have this latest book but have not read it. Not read for it I guess. It was a gift from a good friend who keeps asking me if I liked it. hmmm tricky. I need some vague comments. (haha) I enjoyed your review.

    • Thanks for your comment, Pam. It was so interesting to read what you think about his style. I didn’t feel this was a claustrophobic book but I can see how a book set entirely in Tasmania might be.
      It’s intriguing to come across an author whose style is so distinct but you can hardly put into words why. That alone makes me want to read him again. Not at the moment though.
      I understand what you mean about the pressure but sometimes it’s good not to give in.
      Your book present situation is tricky . . .

  8. I have been circling this one at the bookstore, picking it up, putting it down, again and again. Then I thought, surely one of my blogging friends will get to it soon so why not wait for their review. Yours made me glad I didn’t buy the book – it sounds too horrific, and I like my horrors subtle and with a pinch of supernatural.
    Thanks for the great review.

  9. Caroline – I’m sorry to hear of your experience with this book. Having read your review and Claire’s post (which I recall all too clearly) I’m pretty sure this novel isn’t for me. In all honesty, I’m dreading the prospect of someone picking it for our book group as its Booker win makes it a likely candidate for selection. Thanks for such an honest review.

    • I wouldn’t have wanted reading this for a book club. This way, at least, i could read it at my own pace. On the other hand there are points which would be interesting to discuss.
      I hope thye won’t choose it. It’s not only that he’s graphic but he elaborates scenes over many pages.

  10. Great commentary Caroline.

    As I think you know I have read a lot of non fiction relating to atrocities including some relating to Imperial Japan. These things can be difficult to get through.

    In terms of fiction I do think that sometimes art needs to show the dark side of reality.

    • Thanks, Brian. I never had the impression that he exagerated but I found it too horrible. And, in spite of my reaction, I’d say he did the right thing writing it exactly like this. This had to be written like that but I still would have wished, I hadn’t been so curious. I couldn’t read a non-fiction book on this.

  11. I bought this book a while ago and have been circling it ever since. I want to read it in the spirit of honouring all the POWs who suffered and died at the hands of the Japanese. I think that if Flanagan was able to produce such a strong reaction in you, then he must have got the story right. I think he wanted to make readers experience the full horror of what happened, and maybe to show how the clash of cultures made things even worse because neither side really understood the other’s idea of bravery, honour and courage. Maybe I will give up reading the book because it’s all too ghastly. I think you have a much stronger stomach than I do, but I will give it a try.

    • I agree with you and that’s why I wrote I think he had to write it like this. Everything else would have bee a dishonest compromise. I might have read worse accounts but they didn’t get to me like that. Possibly because they were prisoners. The combinaton of horror, loss of freedom, and the abusrdity of the project. Besides, that charcater, Nakamura, is one of the most evli charcaters I’ve ever come across.
      I’d be very interested in reading what you think of it.
      The wy each perceived the other played into it a great deal. For a Japanese a captured soldier has to kill himselfe. If he goes on living he has no honour, is less than a human being. In a way that’s one reason they mistreated them without giving it much thought.
      Maybe if I had read this at another time my reaction wouldn’t have been this strong.

  12. What a beautiful cover for such atrocities within. I know I won’t be reading this, as I’ve read about what the Japanese did and can’t do it again. It is important to reveal what went on, but not all of us can take it in such large scale.

    • That’s how I felt. IT’s an importnat book but it was too much. The cover shows a Japanese painting. The title is from a haiku. I suppose he wanted to show that such winderful art can come from the same background as these atrocities.

  13. My turn is coming up in the queue at the library. I think I am now #2. I’ve been waiting a couple of months, but I’m am debating whether I should take myself off the list. I might wait for it to come out in paperback and then put it on the shelf for at least a less gloomy time of year. Spring maybe. Thank you for this well-written and insightful post.

    • Thanks, Grad, my pleasure. I wouldn’t want to make people avoid it. Maybe at another time I wouldn’t have reactied like that – not sure though. It was the combination of elemnts that I found so horrifying.
      It’s been on the Top 10 list of quite a few bloggers I like a lot – Notably Tony from Tony’s Book World. You might get along with it much better. On the other hand- if you get it from the libraray you’d have to rush more.
      I’m certainly interested to read your thoughts.

  14. I know someone who thought it was good but very difficult to read for the reasons you mention.
    Contrary to you, I’d rather read about horrible things than watch them in a film. When I read, I manage to block out disturbing images better than when I watch them.

  15. Interesting to hear your take on this as I’ve read some really good reviews as well–but it does sound like hard going in parts. I do want to read it–eventually. This year I wanted to read some of the ‘much talked about’ books but so far I seem to be off on my own again (or reading books that had their ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ ages ago!). You have been reading some harder-going, dark books lately it seems?

    • Yes I have and that’s certainly a reason why this one didn’t work. It was too much. It’s very well written. His style is quite unique but I can’t say I’m glad I read it.
      I’m not sure how you would react. It really has such upsetting scenes.

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