Review of The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
This novel is, in many ways, traditional military fiction, and sometimes I get a little tired of this genre. Horrors, emotional traumas, tragedies—these elements can make war novels hard to read and process. Yet great literature like this is worth reading regardless of whether we gravitate towards the genre, and this book deserves the praise and awards it has earned.
This novel contains very few descriptions of fighting for being military fiction. Instead of combat, the story focuses on an Australian POW camp on the Thai-Burma Death Railway. While the story pivots around the main character Dorrigo and his time spent in the POW camp, the novel also spends a lot of time on the preceding years, including a love story, as well as examining how the aftermath of the war affected the rest of Dorrigo’s life. In addition, chapters are often written from other characters’ perspectives, including Japanese soldiers, creating an exploration of events, motivations, and consequences that are complex and resistant to quick assumptions.
What makes this novel stand out is the writing, which is strong, beautifully descriptive, and compelling. My example of his writing comes from Chapter 3: “The smell of eucalyptus bark, the bold, blue light of the Tasmanian midday, so sharp he had to squint hard to stop it slicing his eyes, the heat of the sun on his taut skin, the hard, short shadows of the others, the sense of standing on a threshold, of joyfully entering a new universe while your old still remained knowable and holdable and not yet lost—all these things he was aware of, as he was of the hot dust, the sweat of the other boys, the laughter, the strange pure joy of being with others.”
The only (minor) problem that I had with the writing is that Flanagan’s love of elaborate detail sometimes becomes overdone and florid. There are too many long lists of abstract nouns that give the writing a forced literary quality; but I won’t take off a star for this as it feels more like the excesses of a great writer and not necessarily a detraction from the book.
I read books with an eye for their appropriateness for serious book clubs. This book will withstand multiple readings, one of my measures of a great book, and I easily created pages and pages of discussion questions. I highly recommend this book.