Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Richard Flanagan's incredible The Narrow Road to the Deep North

In this world
we walk on the roof of hell
gazing at flowers. 

This novel is an extraordinary achievement from Australian novelist Richard Flanagan. Quite simply it is root and branch astonishing. A powerful, rich, gut-wrenching masterpiece.

It stands head and shoulders above most novels I have read over the last few years, so I make this prediction with confidence: this novel will be short listed for next year's Miles Franklin, the Prime Ministers award AND THE BOOKER and could well win all three. 

Flanagan has gone right to the edge here. It's a novel not just about love and war. It explores the very extremes of those human realities.

Some reviewers will tell you this is a novel about war hero Weary Dunlop. It's not. It's much, much more than that. Anchored in historical events and personalities, it fashions and transcends them with exquisite artistry, exploring the deepest meanings and dimensions of our shared human plight. Weary Dunlop is a skeleton around which Flanagan sculptures a masterful work of depth and majesty. 'The strange terrible neverendingness of human beings'.

The novel conveys the lived experience of the construction of the Thai Burma railway with enormous and relentless emotional power. The reader is plunged unsparingly into the horror of the POW camps and the extremity of human evil: 'the hideous labour, the beatings, the torture'. It's visceral stuff and not for the squeamish.

If there is such a thing as male/female polarity, then this novel is about as masculine as you can get. It's tough, grimy, unforgiving, but written in the most lyrical of prose.

If you're at all a sentient human being then it will shake you to your bootstraps and frequently bring you to tears. 

After the war there is the reckoning - with justice, normalcy, reality. The touching scene of the mates visiting Mr Nikitaris' fish shop in honor of their dead friend brought me to tears.

The utter inability of the Weary Dunlop character, Dorrigo Evans, to adapt to domesticity, and of the Japanese camp warden Nakamura to bed his inner turmoil is sympathetically told. Hell dogged them. Forged in the deep, they couldn't thrive in the shallows. They're damaged men, as if emerged from the darkest netherworld.

There's a Dickensian dimension to the narrative - a lost baby, horrendous fires, lies and misunderstandings, coincidental sightings, and the aristocratic Evans and his public duties. But all these plot points add richness to the ultimate meaning and profundity of this incredible work.

'For an instant he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilisations it created, greater than any god man worshipped, for it was the only true god. It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal. For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boots and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence.' (p307)


  1. I googled Nikitaris's fish shop to see if it was a real place. I cried when the old man forgave them and told them about his son.

  2. I cried too.
    This book is a towering literary achievement I never wanted to end.
    Who will ever forget the honesty, exhilaration and frisson of the love between Amy and The Big Fella.

    An important read for Australians of any generation. .. about war and love.. a lesson on both for many.
    I'm Australian and my parent's generation fought in WW2 and I knew men who were POW's and worked on the Burma Railway. They came back with big heads and stick bodies and they never put on weight... we never knew their horrors, but were sorry for their misery.

    I cannot say enough about this book. Listen to it on Audible, its read by an Australian. Outstanding.