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Book Club Spy: Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Richard Flanagan – The Narrow Road to the Deep North

the_narrow_road_9f6ab061951_originalIt is getting harder to record the dialogue of Book Club as time goes on. Partly because I am too busy trying to interrupt to write down the finer points ricocheting about, and partly because a pattern has appeared where the group divides into two – fairly sharply down the middle – and one half then proceeds to disagree with the other. In the most good natured way possible. At great speed and volume.

For the session on Lorrie Moore’s Bark this was more of a problem (coming soon) but for Flanagan it was ideal, because of the LRB review.

For those of you who have not yet had the pleasure, The Narrow Road to the Deep North received a fairly scathing review from Michael Hofmann in the December issue of The London Review of Books. It is full of scything blows like this:

This novel is truly an entitled thing: it demands both action and high-value misty contemplation or ‘memory’. It is a universal solvent, or claims to be. You want love, it says; I got love! You want death? I got it. All the kinds. Any amount. It is all bite, and no chew. ”

I read this article before I read the novel; despite being warned not to, but could not contain myself. It is both terrible and wonderful. As a testament to the thickness of my skull or ability to compartmentalize, I truly enjoyed the book despite this. It is an account of life in a Japanese POW camp for Australian soldiers building a railway in impossible conditions, and then beyond to life after the war, full of crossed wires and missed opportunity.

Those in Book Club who disliked the novel in its own right – having escaped Hofmann’s surgical body blow – did so for the wrong reasons. That is was not worthy of the Man Booker; that there are too many books on the Second World War; that the protagonist Dorrigo Evans is not complicated enough – these do not really stand up as arguments in themselves.

Hofmann makes several fair points: the love story is jerkily executed. Our hero falls in love with the wrong woman, and they do not get a happy ending. So far, not so bad, but there is a halting uncertainty to how Flanagan plots this missed opportunity so that it is more awkward than tragic. However, there is an argument that every love story in wartime does not get to be a sweeping epic. Similarly, Dorrigo is no Captain Dicky Winters from Band of Brothers, especially once he gets home, but surely that is the point of him. He plays the hero, but knows he is performing a necessary role in the camp, and once he gets home he continues to act. Unfortunately he is a Don Draper figure in peacetime: a facsimile, a shadow of a man, blankly pursuing women for the sake of it having already ticked all of life’s necessary boxes. The only problem is that Flanagan did not make the character darker.

Flanagan’s use of language veers towards the trite, and then reels itself back in in the nick of time with phrases like “the heat felt like a maternal force commanding him not to get up“. Some argued he has no style and others simply no affectation, comparing him to Colm Toibin.

One thing emerges for sure: there is a lot of surface work going on. Life in peacetime is not explained in detail until years have gone by, the difficulty of rehabilitation for Dorrigo is glossed over, when this would have gone a long way towards explaining his later difficulties. This may have also been because of the nature Flanagan’s own father’s recollections, which formed the spine of the book. The war comes to an end, people change their names and attempt to move on from the horror of starving to death in the damp jungle, and of course Dorrigo Evans can’t relate to those around him on a deeper level post war. None of them were dying of dysentery for want of a single egg in trenches full of human excrement. Both Evans and his captors in the camp have a certain amount of uncertainty about their names, especially the latter when it comes to the war crimes trial. No one knows who to be afterwards; this is nothing new.

Of course, some of the Japanese disappeared into ruined Tokyo and effectively eluded any attempt to identify them, at least for years. Nakamura, the General of the camp, hooked on speed and given an impossible job to do (build a railway in a sodden jungle with dying prisoners and dwindling resources) feels ticks biting him under the skin and believes he represents the Japanese spirit in its purest form. He survives by changing his name, and by refusing to remember. He believed the Australians died in their thousands because they did not have the necessary ‘spirit’ that the Japanese exemplified – the irony behind the spirit of nations being that every nation believes it is unique to them. The Australian attitude in the camps was refreshing to someone reared on British Blitz and Bridge Across the River Kwai bravery: they make jokes at the bleakest moments on the Line, and those who make it go back to the haunts described by the fallen, to drink together. This was a refreshing change to David Niven-esque lighting of cigarettes and telling each other to buck up during a dogfight, etc etc.

With all of the anniversaries of wars occurring so close to each other, some may be saturated with stories of horror from both World Wars and now Waterloo. This book deserves a look out of the Booker Prize beam, and in the light of being an Australian book (one of several I have enjoyed in recent years and would like to see more around) written for the right reasons.

The Editors

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