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

Described in a review by The Economist as ‘the book Mr Flanagan was born to write’, The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the Man Booker Prize in 2014. The novel orbits around Dorrigo Evans, a Tasmanian surgeon who falls for his uncle’s wife Amy before shipping off to fight against the Japanese during World War II.

When I picked up The Narrow Road to the Deep North, I remember thinking to myself, ‘this won a literary prize so it has to be good’. Yet it was so different to what I usually read, I knew I’d need to pen designated ‘reading time’ into my schedule to truly enjoy the book. No distractions, no television in the background, no reading after a challenging day at work. This was a book for the holidays.

Multi-award winning novel, 'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' by Richard Flanagan...
Multi-award winning novel, ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Richard Flanagan…

As I read the first few words, I was pleased that I had waited for the opportune moment. Immediately, I was thrown by the nature of the writing. There were no quotation marks; something I had never seen before in published text. Often, I had to re-read sections to check if someone was still talking. Additionally, at the start of each chapter, I was hauled from one moment in time to the next, with perspective changes as long as fifty years occurring in a single sentence. Eventually, as I grew accustomed to the perspective jumping and lack of punctuation, I began to see the great beauty in the prose and I forged on.

At such times he had the sensation that there was only one book in the universe, and that all books were simply portals into this greater ongoing work – an inexhaustible, beautiful world that was not imaginary but the world as it truly was, a book without beginning or end.”

The book is divided into four parts, the first being an intricate exercise in foreshadowing, detailing the events leading up to Dorrigo’s capture in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, the events following his return to Australia, and the moment when he meets Amy for the first time in an Adelaide bookshop. From there, Dorrigo and Amy’s affair moves to the forefront of the plot, interspersed with scenes introducing the Japanese officers in charge of the POW camp (whose names were so similar I would often confuse one with another).

Their inclusion in part two kept me turning pages in frustration, simply because I wanted to know what would happen next between Dorrigo and Amy. The affair is drawn out in unexpected detail, a plot arc that before starting the book I believed would play more of a minor role, told only in flashbacks or in brief. This section felt to me like the calm before the storm, showing readers hope and love before descending into the gloom of war, with Australian mateship the only silver lining.

In part three the action follows the struggles of the Australian soldiers under Dorrigo’s leadership, each with their own emotionally charged story to tell, as they are forced to work day and night constructing the Thai-Burma death railway. Finally, in part four, the foreshadowed future, and the story of each character comes to a close.

… and the only question that pressed on them, as to who might be next, had been answered. And the feeling of gratitude that it had been someone else gnawed in their guts, along with the hunger and the fear and the loneliness, until the question returned, refreshed, renewed, undeniable. And the only answer they could make to it was this: they had each other.”

Author Richard Flanagan. Image Credit: Sarah Lee for The Guardian.
Author Richard Flanagan. Image Credit: Sarah Lee for The Guardian.

Perhaps the finest feature of the novel, making the dark content all the more bearable, was its Australian feel and my personal connection to it. The small town in New South Wales after which Dorrigo Evans is named just happened to be the town in which my first love grew up. Much of the story was set in South Australia and the description of Adelaide’s roads and hot summer weather, which became symbolic of the stuffy relationship between Amy and Keith, made me feel right at home.

Amy and Dorrigo would rendezvous south of Adelaide at Keith’s pub, the King of Cornwall and again, the setting sent me back in time, having spent hours outside Adelaide’s seaside pubs myself. Similarly to the hot weather, the coastal setting mirrored the plot, representative of Amy’s restlessness, stuck in the confines of her stifling marriage.

As she looked up and down the surf, she saw other people in line with her, so many people, expectant, hopeful, similarly waiting for the next wave to break, hoping to ride its power in to shore.”

Normally I avoid books and movies about war, but immersing myself in the day-to-day horrors of this story, told within the safe confines of historical fiction, became an experience that changed the way I approach my life. In a similar way to the character Pi in Life of Pi by Yann Martel, the POWs were at the very edge of death, even their most basic needs unfulfilled, pushing the human body to its limits under horrific conditions. How often do we experience this in real life? How else, but through a novel?

If he at his rice ball now, thought Darky Gardiner, he would have nothing more to eat for another twelve hours. If he kept it, he would have five hours until their short lunch break – five hours in which he could at least look forward to the prospect of food. But if he ate it now, he would have neither food nor hope.”

Richard Flanagan says that after finishing the manuscript he was ‘completely washed out’ and that he ‘had nothing left’ in him. After reading the final sentence, I felt the same way, relief, as I put the book down and wondered how I had managed to get through it.

On rare occasions, I found the prose to be long-winded and unnecessary, but, as a keen reader of popular fast-paced adventure and mystery novels, I did enjoy this unusual foray into Man Booker Prize-winning literature. This wonderfully crafted novel changed how I see the world, with its striking imagery and a quotable sentence on every page.

Further Reading

1 Richard Flanagan at the Sydney Writer’s Festival

2 Remembrance – A review from The Economist

The Monthly Book interview with Ramona Koval

Publisher: Vintage Books
ISBN: 9780857980366
Format: Paperback
Publication Date: 2014
Length: 467 pages

Daniel Murphy

Teacher by day and writer by night, Daniel Murphy has self-published three books and appeared in Writer's Edit's anthology, Kindling 2. Currently living in Port Augusta, his spare time is dominated by sports rehab and complicated by part-time study. He loves cooking, reading and road trips.

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