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Thread: The Narrow Road To The Deep North - Richard Flanagan

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    Registered User easy75's Avatar
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    The Narrow Road To The Deep North - Richard Flanagan

    The Narrow Road to The Deep North - Richard Flanagan

    2014 Booker prize winner

    Chronicles the life of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian Army Colonel and surgeon, captured during WWII and interred on the infamous death railway in Burma. There is more to the book than that, but in my opinion it suffers for the additions of a somewhat tedious love affair at the beginning and an even drearier and unbelievably coincidental series of events at the end.
    That said, the heart of the story is the camp and the railway, and Flanagan's writing here is mesmerizing. His prose is elegant and unforced in describing the absolute horrors of the Pow's lives. The ulcers, infections, malaria, and cholera. The gangrene, and the squalor they are forced to live in, and the savagery of the Japanese officers and Korean guards who oversee them and ultimately work them to death are illustrated unflinchingly. The story of the camp transcends ideas of good and evil. Flanagan deftly calls everything into question. All of Evans' ideas of morality, purpose, fate, justice, and compassion are subsequently examined and shattered.
    In one poignant scene Evans argues vigorously that the men should not be worked day and night, that they will die. Major Nakamura the commander of the camp, queries : "Your British Empire, you think it did not need non-freedom, Colonel? It was built bridge by bridge of non-freedom." (paraphrased)
    Yet Evans holds on. He continues to do what is right for the men under his command. In all things, he places their needs before his. He sacrifices everything he has to save them and spare them whatever suffering he can. A strange thing because Evan's ultimately seems to believe in very little. Certainly not himself. He only holds on to his memories of his brief love affair, torn apart by his leaving for the war, and subsequently eradicated by an unfortunate turn of events relayed to him in a letter during his imprisonment.
    Eventually the surviving prisoners are freed and attempt to return to their lives. Flanagan weaves a sort of kaleidoscopic vision of the prisoners, and even the Japanese officers, as they re-enter a world that has moved on without them. It takes many of them the rest of their lives to come to terms with what happened to them. Some die without ever managing to make sense of their lives. Evan's himself is chronically disconnected from his life. It is difficult to tell if it is the horrors of the camp that haunt him, or the loss of his ideal of love.

    Overall a good book. One problem for me was the unlike-ability of the main character. I just could not bring myself to care much about him or what happened to him. He seemed "buggered" from the beginning and didn't seem to want to do much about it. This theme of inaction in the book was relentless and frustrating. Much more interesting and endearing were the men under Evan's command. Darky Gardiner, Jimmy Bigelow, Bill Rainbow and the motley rest of them were brilliantly drawn splashes of real humanity in an otherwise bleak story. Also the scenes involving the Japanese officers are intensely interesting. Their private conversations are fascinating, chilling, enviable, and pitiable all at the same time. They, just as much as the POW's, are prisoners of the railway and have to find a way to categorize this experience in a way that, even if it doesn't make sense, allows them to go on with what they feel they must do.
    My other problem with the book was it's use of chance and coincidence to propel the story forward. I like a good coincidence as much as anyone else and am not against a writer making clever use of it to a good end. But this got a little ridiculous.

    Despite my issues I can see why this book was an award winner, and Flanagan's prose is such a treat to read that, for most readers, it will probably more than make up for any detracting factors or plot problems.
    I would give it 7 stars out of ten.
    Last edited by easy75; 12-31-2014 at 01:37 PM.

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    TobeFrank Paulclem's Avatar
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    Good review Easy. I'd like to add some more thoughts on the book.

    The Narrow Road to the Deep North is also the title of Matsuo Basho's travelogue / haibun which includes text and haiku. Basho made the Haiku form famous and his book is his most famous text.
    Copying the title in a book, which at its centre concerns the suffering of allied and particularly antipodean soldiers, establishes a cultural and emotional link with the Japanese. This is illustrated by the descriptions of Japanese suffering in the army and the cultural corruption they underwent. As Easy pointed out, they too are victims.
    The structure of the book is interesting; pre war years, war years and post war years. The book cuts backwards and forwards to contrast episodes and skilfully reveal the story of Dorrigo Evans and the many characters associated with him. I think the non-linear structure enables Flanagan to link significant moments or epiphanies and relate them through memory to the experience of the characters. These are embodied in visual images such as the red camelia which signifies Dorrigo's true love and which appears at the POW camp and the future marital home of his different wife. These are described quite beautifully by Flanagan and are a kind of prose haiku.
    The significance of these moments is also linked to key decisions made by guards POWs and characters in the novel. These often have fatal effects and continue to resonate in the lives of the survivors and others. Coincidence does occur, but one significant meeting -the passing of two former lovers on a bridge - has no result because of the misconceptions developed in the moments before they pass.
    I think the message of the book is to take more notice of those small moments which often have large emotional effects upon people. The characters' journeys are attempts to understand themselves through these moments and resolve the conflicts the lack of awareness which affect their inner well being.
    I liked the book for its ambition in tying the inner life of characters to historical events, and the effects that these have up to the moment of death, and the further relation of poetry and culture. A great book.

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    Registered User easy75's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Paulclem View Post
    Good review Easy. I'd like to add some more thoughts on the book.

    The Narrow Road to the Deep North is also the title of Matsuo Basho's travelogue / haibun which includes text and haiku. Basho made the Haiku form famous and his book is his most famous text.
    Copying the title in a book, which at its centre concerns the suffering of allied and particularly antipodean soldiers, establishes a cultural and emotional link with the Japanese. This is illustrated by the descriptions of Japanese suffering in the army and the cultural corruption they underwent. As Easy pointed out, they too are victims.
    The structure of the book is interesting; pre war years, war years and post war years. The book cuts backwards and forwards to contrast episodes and skilfully reveal the story of Dorrigo Evans and the many characters associated with him. I think the non-linear structure enables Flanagan to link significant moments or epiphanies and relate them through memory to the experience of the characters. These are embodied in visual images such as the red camelia which signifies Dorrigo's true love and which appears at the POW camp and the future marital home of his different wife. These are described quite beautifully by Flanagan and are a kind of prose haiku.
    The significance of these moments is also linked to key decisions made by guards POWs and characters in the novel. These often have fatal effects and continue to resonate in the lives of the survivors and others. Coincidence does occur, but one significant meeting -the passing of two former lovers on a bridge - has no result because of the misconceptions developed in the moments before they pass.
    I think the message of the book is to take more notice of those small moments which often have large emotional effects upon people. The characters' journeys are attempts to understand themselves through these moments and resolve the conflicts the lack of awareness which affect their inner well being.
    I liked the book for its ambition in tying the inner life of characters to historical events, and the effects that these have up to the moment of death, and the further relation of poetry and culture. A great book.

    Nice review Paul! I didn't know any of that about Basho. I am not really familiar with Haiku, but I did enjoy the poetry in the book.
    The chance meeting between former lovers wasn't what bothered me. My irritation had more to do with the revelation about the real identity of one of the POWs. I thought it was unnecessary and cheapened an otherwise great character. Do you know the part I mean? I'm curious what you thought about that.
    Also, the way Evans meets his true love in the first place? Surely this could have been done differently without relying so much on crazy coincidence. But maybe (probably) I am missing a point the author was trying to make.
    But anyhow, I strongly agree with you regarding the ambition of the book. The scope of the story is amazing, and it would have taken a lot of writers twice as many pages to do justice to it. Flanagan does it succinctly without sacrificing anything. He is certainly able to convey an amazing amount of depth and feeling without bogging down the story.
    I absolutely loved the sequence of events, post war, when the fellows set out to free the fish, and the subsequent conversation with the shopkeeper. That was masterfully done.

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    TobeFrank Paulclem's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by easy75 View Post
    N
    The chance meeting between former lovers wasn't what bothered me. My irritation had more to do with the revelation about the real identity of one of the POWs. I thought it was unnecessary and cheapened an otherwise great character. Do you know the part I mean? I'm curious what you thought about that.
    Also, the way Evans meets his true love in the first place? Surely this could have been done differently without relying so much on crazy coincidence. But maybe (probably) I am missing a point the author was trying to make.
    Hi Easy - no I don't know the bit you mean.

    I did read as part of the publicity that Flanagan's father was a POW on the Burma Railway, and that he died on the day that he submitted the manuscript to the publisher.

    A revelation about a real character doesn't bother me either - in fact it would deepen it for me. It becomes something more than a fictional account. I nowadays often - as i'm sure others do - find myself driling down into stories through the internet to find out more about characters and events.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Paulclem View Post
    Hi Easy - no I don't know the bit you mean.

    I did read as part of the publicity that Flanagan's father was a POW on the Burma Railway, and that he died on the day that he submitted the manuscript to the publisher.

    A revelation about a real character doesn't bother me either - in fact it would deepen it for me. It becomes something more than a fictional account. I nowadays often - as i'm sure others do - find myself driling down into stories through the internet to find out more about characters and events.
    Oh no, I didn't mean Flanagan's father! I thought that his fathers experience was very moving and definitely deepened the meaning of the story. I was referring to the revelation about Darky Gardiner being Evans' nephew.

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    TobeFrank Paulclem's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by easy75 View Post
    Oh no, I didn't mean Flanagan's father! I thought that his fathers experience was very moving and definitely deepened the meaning of the story. I was referring to the revelation about Darky Gardiner being Evans' nephew.
    Oh yes.
    I don't think this was handled clumsily but in a realistic manner. The discovery of the fact in retrograde adds poignancy to what for Evans is a significant moment. In a usual novel such a fact would result in some development of the plot, an added complication or connection that affects the outcome of events. Here we have a simple fact of coincidence that does not alter or affect events, but merely reflects coincidence in real life. (Funnily enough one happened to me and my son yesterday). I think this is Flanagan's point.

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    Registered User easy75's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Paulclem View Post
    Oh yes.
    I don't think this was handled clumsily but in a realistic manner. The discovery of the fact in retrograde adds poignancy to what for Evans is a significant moment. In a usual novel such a fact would result in some development of the plot, an added complication or connection that affects the outcome of events. Here we have a simple fact of coincidence that does not alter or affect events, but merely reflects coincidence in real life. (Funnily enough one happened to me and my son yesterday). I think this is Flanagan's point.
    Fair enough. I know that weird things happen. I remember once walking through Chicago's big downtown mall and running right into my sister. She lived in Indiana at the time and I lived in Michigan, and neither of us was even aware the other was in Chicago. Literally ran right into her in this crowded sea of people, in this huge metro area far from both of our homes. What are the odds on that??
    So yeah, I know coincidences happen, but it still rubbed me wrong in the story. But all in all a great book. I will definitely be reading more from Flanagan in the future.

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    Registered User prendrelemick's Avatar
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    Just finished it and sort of liked it.

    I found both the above reviews helpful. I actually thought the pre and post war stuff was more interesting than the visceral descriptions of the barely imaginable horrors on the railway - probably because it is a story that has been told and retold, and a book of fiction can never match the gravitas of the memoirs of real survivors. However what Flanagan builds around those stories, especially the cultural attitude and motivations of the Japanese was truly interesting, and for me a new perspective. The fascinating horror of the conversation between Nakamura and Kato was the most memorable part of the whole book for me.

    The coincidence thing was a bit strange, it tied the beginning, middle and end together but didn't affect anything or lead anywhere. All Dorriago could do was shrug and carry on carrying on. The fire episode was a bit out of place too.

    Another recurring theme was that all things must pass and will be forgotten - bodies, bones, pearl necklaces and finally memories. We strive and struggle, but leave no lasting mark. The tradition of the Japanese death poem is an attempt to sum up and pass on feelings at this time, imbued with the wisdom learnt from a life. But when the Korean guard is to die he can only think of the wages he is owed and when Dorriago dies the book abruptly stops.
    Last edited by prendrelemick; 05-26-2015 at 04:13 AM.
    ay up

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