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The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013)

by Richard Flanagan

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2,9001434,272 (4.01)2 / 367
"A novel of love and war that traces the life of one man--an Australian surgeon--from a prisoner-of-war camp on the Thai-Burma Death Railway during World War II, up to the present"--

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English (138)  Dutch (1)  German (1)  French (1)  All languages (141)
Showing 1-5 of 138 (next | show all)
Whoa. I found this novel to be both deeply flawed and incredibly compelling and powerful. The compelling and powerful part was enough to give it five stars in spite of the issues I had with it.
The story is about an Australian doctor, Dorrigo Evans, who ends up in a Japanese run POW camp. This particular group of POWs is responsible for building the Burma Railway (also known as the Death Railway). The task was seen as impossible, but the Japanese were basically determined to build it no matter what the cost. The book centers on life in the POW camp and then the aftermath of the war from both Evans' and the Japanese guards perspectives. In addition, before the war, Evans has an affair with his uncle's wife, and there is a subplot that focuses on Evans' affair and the impacts on his family life.

Let's talk about what makes this book so outstanding. First, Flanagan really wrote about war in such a way that it was totally brought to life for me. The scenes are very graphic, but I literally felt like I was there in the jungle with these prisoners. It was completely vivid in my mind. Second, Flanagan slowly reveals a very fascinating theme (or fascinating to me) about the true nature of man and whether good and bad can reside in one man at the same time and how that can happen. He investigates the issues of conscious and character on a deep level. I loved the way he explored these themes, and as soon as I finished the last page, I wanted to open the book back up and start it over again.

Unfortunately, there are some negatives that I feel I must mention because I don't think this book is going to be for everyone.

The initial 70 pages just aren't good reading. If I was the type of person who can put a book aside readily without finishing, it probably would have been put aside. It helped that it was recommended by someone who has never steered me wrong on a recommendation. Then, suddenly, it was as though the book takes off like a rocket. And at the end, I wanted to re-read the first 70 pages because things at the end tie back to the beginning. Honestly, I kinda really want to re-read the whole book now.
Also, the book jumps around in time without quite enough clues for my taste as to where you are in the timeline. That can be slightly frustrating.

Finally, Flanagan doesn't write about love and sex in nearly the same fashion as he writes about war. I felt like he truly understood war deep in his core. That he was somehow "writing what he knew". Love. Not so much. The love story never really came alive for me, and there's so many more moving love stories that if you were to read this book for that, you'd be wasting your time.

And yet, even with all these pretty substantial issues, I totally see why this book won the Booker. It will stay with me for a long time. I may actually re-read it. Something I rarely, rarely do. Honestly, in some way, it was different from any other book I can recall reading. I highlighted a lot of passages. Way more than usual. When it related to the war, I felt like the prose was outstanding. ( )
  Anita_Pomerantz | Mar 23, 2023 |
Powerful historical fiction about timeless themes: the horrors of war, the nature of heroism, moral dualism, the meaning of life. The protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, is a doctor leading a group of Australian POWs captured by the Japanese in WWII and forced to build the Thai–Burma Death Railway. He rises to the challenge during crises, but his personal life is in disarray. The writing is eloquent, the storyline is riveting and the characters, particularly the men, are deeply drawn. It is thought-provoking and insightful. It helps explain, but does not excuse, the atrocities committed during the war by getting into the minds of those in charge of the prison camp. It also provides insight into the various coping mechanisms of the prisoners, both during and after the war. Flanagan’s vivid descriptions gave me a mind’s eye view into the horrific conditions of the prisoners in the jungle. The author employed a couple of recurring motifs that appealed to me, such as the interplay between light and shadow and the plentiful literary references. My issues with it were minor: female characters not at the same depth as the men, a bit choppy in the beginning, and lack of quotation marks, requiring a bit of re-reading.

This book contains graphic descriptions of violence, such as beheadings, operations without anesthesia, and brutal beatings. Also contains triggers for starvation, disease, infidelity, and PTSD. I felt physically ill reading some of these descriptions, so be forewarned.

Favorite quote:
"A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else."
( )
  Castlelass | Nov 4, 2022 |
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a story of the forced labor construction of the Burmese Railway by Australian POW’s in WWII. If you have ever seen Bridge on the River Kwai, you know about the Railway, but even then you may not be aware of the extreme cruelty and horrid conditions under which these men labored and died. I can scarcely bear to read about it, how on earth did any of them survive it? Is it any wonder that so few men who returned ever wanted to talk about these times and experiences?

Of course, this is a fiction, so there is a personal story that swims through the historical one. It is the story of Dorrigo Evans, a doctor who helps to hold together the men of the camp, and who suffers from his own anguish that stems from his affair with his uncle’s young wife. This book courses with realism, to an extent that is hard to bear. I found myself at many points simply unable to go any further without taking a step away from the book and the time that preyed on my mind so deeply. It must have been an excruciating book to write.

As well, I was constantly wanting to stop and record passages that bore remembering, particularly those dealing with the facing of the threat of death on a daily basis and those regarding memory.

Do you know the poem, Bonox? It’s by Kipling. It’s not about remembering. It’s about forgetting--how everything gets forgotten.

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Neneveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget--lest we forget!

Nothing endures. Don't you see, Bonox? That's what Kipling meant. Not empires, not memories. We remember nothing. Maybe for a year or two. Maybe most of a life, if we live. Maybe. But then we will die, and who will ever understand any of this? And maybe we remember nothing most of all when we put our hands on our hearts and carry on about not forgetting."

If anything lays testament to the elusive nature of life, this ordeal does. These men are confronted with life as merely a path to death, and survival at any cost as a goal hardly worth holding onto. What one man is able to do to another, and to justify to themselves, is astonishing...and it is always astonishing, regardless of how many such stories you hear or how many such acts you witness.

I knew very well a man who had been a soldier in Vietnam. He found it difficult to talk about what he had seen in the jungles there, and yet, his mind never strayed far from that place or that time. He replayed events and lost people and atrocities that seemed impossible to have happened to such a sweet, kind American boy. I used to ponder over what he might have been had he not been haunted by that intrusion into his life, if he had never felt the need to drown his memories and silence those ghostly voices. I thought of him as I read this book. War is hell, in ways that even Sherman could not have imagined, and is it any wonder that those who survive are never the same?

The things he believed in were heading out to sea, vanishing, lost forever. The things he thought he was coming home to. The things that he had hoped to become and make his life. It turned out that they weren’t worth a brass razoo.

Can anyone ever atone for such horror? If you do such things but afterward live a life of “goodness”, does it matter? And, why do the good, the honest, the brave often suffer, while the vile, the horrid, the ones who make the hell even more hellish prosper and never pay?

He told himself that, through his service of this cosmic goodness, he had discovered he was not one man but many, that he could do the most terrible things he might otherwise have thought were evil if he had not known that they were in the service of the ultimate goodness. For he loved poetry above all, and the Emperor was a poem of one word…

And what of the good man who finds his own worth in the chaos and horror that is war?

He could never admit to himself that it was death that had given his life meaning.

Dorrigo Evans, Darky Gardiner, Tenji Nakamura, even Amy Mulvaney are characters I will likely never forget. What a deserving winner for the Man Booker, what a remarkable piece of literature, what an astounding capacity to glimpse into the souls of people Richard Flanagan displays. This is one of those rare books that make me wish Goodreads would give us one more button to push, because this book is not a five-star read, it is a ten.

( )
  mattorsara | Aug 11, 2022 |
A Keskeny út északra a háborús regényeknek azt a hagyományát követi, amit a 22-es csapdája vagy a kiváló Matterhorn fémjelez: célja egy minden patetikusságtól megfosztott háborúkép bemutatása. A közkeletű hősmítoszok gyakran operálnak virtigli, jólfésült katonákkal, akiknek egy szösz sincs a hajtókáján – ilyenek például a Luftwaffe sztár-vadászpilótái, akik arcukon férfias mosollyal férfiasan csatáznak a férfias égben a férfias satöbbivel. (Ja, hát nekik könnyű, ők ritkán látnak sarat.) Flanagan egy másfajta hőst állít elénk: ez a hős hason csúszik a rothadó szemétben egy falat penészes rizsgombócért, dengue-láztól delirál, nem tudja visszatartani a székletét, lop-csal-hazudik a túlélésért… de mégis, hős a javából. Flanagan eposza semmi jót nem tud mondani a háborúról – fogolytábor-lakóit csak az tartja életben, hogy abba kapaszkodnak, ami nem háború: egy emlékbe, egy reménybe, vagy valami testetlen gyűlöletbe.

Ez a könyv kegyetlen, naturális, csapongó, múlt és jövő között ingázó szövegfolyam a szenvedésről. Főszereplői foglyul ejtett ausztrál (főképp tasmániai) katonák, akik a legendás Vonalon dolgoznak – építik azt az esőerdőn keresztülhaladó vasútvonalat, aminek meg kellett volna oldania, hogy a japán hadsereg ellátmányt és katonákat juttasson Burmába*. Ezt a vasútvonalat megépíteni lehetetlen – európai szemmel. De japán szemmel lehetséges, feltéve, ha a foglyokat nem embernek, hanem fogyóeszköznek tekintjük, akiknek ez csak egy kiváló alkalom lemosni magukról a szégyent: hogy megadták magukat. Ezek a foglyok úgy csúsznak vissza valami félállati létbe, hogy azt nagyon nehéz az olvasónak ép ésszel befogadnia – ellenpontozásul pedig ott vannak a rabtartók, a japánok, akik a maguk bushido felsőbbrendűségükről lepillantva rabjaik elállatiasodásukban igazolva látják azt, amit mindig is gondoltak: hogy ezek az európaiak nem is emberek. És közben haikukat szavalnak egymásnak, Császárról, nemzetről és szellemről diskurálnak. Ahogy Flanagan megrajzolja a japán katonákat, az egyfelől persze nem feltétlenül új (elég a Boldog karácsonyt, Mr. Lawrence c. filmre, vagy a Híd a Kwai folyón-ra gondolni), másfelől meg a szerzőt érheti a sematizmus vádja. Ugyanakkor Flanagan képes távol-keleti hangulatot lopni a szövegbe, kissé tompítva az éleket és finomítva a ritmust – egyrészt maga a cím célzás egy Basuó-szövegre, másfelől pedig gyakran talákozunk haikukkal, vagy haikukra tett utalásokkal. De ami ennél is fontosabb: az író nem engedi el a szereplők kezét, ahogy azok kilépnek a táborból, hanem utána is nyomon követi őket – így lesz a szimpla háborús történet a felejtés és emlékezés (valamint az arra való képtelenség) regénye, és elmélkedés a kultúrák bűnfogalmainak különbségeiről. Ha részleteiben innen-onnan ismerős elemekből is építkezik, összességében nagyon szépen összerakott, hatásos regény ez, néhol pedig kifejezetten brutális ereje van. Jó gyomrú olvasóknak ajánlani tudom.

* A Halálvasút léte történelmi valóság. Az ott dolgozó százezernyi rabnak (európaiaknak és ázsiaiaknak vegyesen, bár természetesen utóbbiak voltak többen) óvatos becslések szerint is harmada halt bele a kimerítő munkába, az orvosi ellátás hiányába, az éhezésbe és a japán őrök kegyetlenkedéseibe.

( )
  Kuszma | Jul 2, 2022 |
I had a hard time reading this book, not because it was poorly written- it's gloriously written - but because it depicts so graphically the horrors of the attempt by the Japanese in World War II to build a railroad through the jungle in Thailand, using slave labor. The slaves are Australian POWs, and they are driven mercilessly, starved and beaten, and many, many died. They develop a deep attachment to each other, with the goal to keep each other alive.

The primary witness to this is an Army doctor, Dorigo Evans, who struggles make moral decisions in the face of intractable orders. His story is told in flashbacks to his childhood on Tasmania, his formal rise in Australian society, his marriage and his deeply passionate affair with his uncle's wife. At every turn, he struggles with the idea of morality - what is a good man? While he is ultimately a hero both during the war and afterward, he feels a failure at the end.

The novel follows the survivors of the Thailand atrocities, Australian, Japanese and Korean, after the war. Some strive to forget. Some cannot forget. Some forgive themselves, some do not. Memory, the inevitable forgetting, is a constant theme.

It is a powerful book, horrific in that it portrays a real event and real actions, committed by people on people. Terrifying. ( )
  ffortsa | Dec 16, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 138 (next | show all)
This novel would have been far more powerful and coherent if Amy were excised from the story. It is the story of Dorrigo, as one man among many P.O.W.’s in the Asian jungle, that is the beating heart of this book: an excruciating, terrifying, life-altering story that is an indelible fictional testament to the prisoners there. Taken by themselves, these chapters create a slim, compelling story: Odysseus’s perseverance through a bloody war and his return home at last to Penelope (in this case, Ella) and his efforts, like his fellow soldiers’, to see if he can put the horrors and suffering of war in the rearview mirror, and somehow construct a fulfilling Act II to a broken life.

» Add other authors (13 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Richard Flanaganprimary authorall editionscalculated
Blommesteijn, AnkieTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Mother, they write poems.

    Paul Celan
A bee
staggers out
of the peony.

For prisoner san byaku ju go (335)
First words
Why at the beginning of things is there always light?
But sometimes things are said and they're not just words. They are everything that one person thinks of another in a sentence. Just one sentence. . . . . .There are words and words and none mean anything. And then one sentence means everything.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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"A novel of love and war that traces the life of one man--an Australian surgeon--from a prisoner-of-war camp on the Thai-Burma Death Railway during World War II, up to the present"--

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Book description
AUGUST, 1943. In the despair of a Japanese POW cam on the Thai-Burma death railway, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his love affair with his uncle's young wife two years earlier. Struggling to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from beatings, he receives a letter that will change his life forever.

This savagely beautiful novel is a story about the many forms of love and death, of war and truth, as one man comes of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost.,
Haiku summary
Horror in the jungle;
Love kept him strong -
An illusion.

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