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The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013)

by Richard Flanagan

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
3,1521464,307 (4.01)2 / 373
"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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» See also 373 mentions

English (142)  German (1)  French (1)  Dutch (1)  All languages (145)
Showing 1-5 of 142 (next | show all)
This book will stay in my mind for a long time. Its ostensible hero is Tasmanian Dorrigo Evans, poor boy made good, impossibly prolific philanderer, surgeon drafted into the Army, POW on the Burma Death Railway.

There are so many others though. Ella, whom he seems destined to marry; Amy, his lover and wife of his uncle; Darky Gardiner, surviving as POW against all the odds; Rooster MacNeice, ditto; Jack Rainbow, who succumbs to horrible gangrene; Fukuhara and Nakamura, Japanese officers charged with getting the necessary daily tally of work from the men, whatever the odds.

The story is highly nuanced. Saints are sinners too. The unremittingly evil turn out to have good in their soul as well. By running the story into the years long after the war is over, the long and potent shadow of those POW years is fully revealed.

The richness of the story is in the detail: poetry is a constant refrain; happy details, whether of langorous love making wihh Amy or some other lover, or the almost undealable with pleasure of a bartered duck egg to a POW slave. Details of beatings, constant, gnawing hunger and sickness are vivid but never gratuitous.

This is a fine book, which I shall revisit. Anyone who feels that you can't understand history from novels should give this a go. I've never come nearer to a real appreciation of those years at the Japanese POW camps than I have in this book. ( )
1 vote Margaret09 | Apr 15, 2024 |
Extraordinary and memorable. Highly recommended. ( )
1 vote fmclellan | Jan 23, 2024 |
A very fine and structurally elaborate story built, to some degree, on the structure and meaning of Basho's great 17th century Haibun (a combination of prose and Haiku) of the same name. The novel has five parts, each introduced by an Haiku - the first by Basho and the others by Issa. Haikus also figure in the central part of the story which is based on the experiences of Australian prisoners of war building the Burma Railway for their Japanese captors in 1943. We see at least some portions of the Australian protagonist's whole life, before, during and after his war experience, but there is some jumping in time, and, with considerable imagery of hell, there is a sense that his life is defined by and revolves around a horrific day in Burma. All of the other characters are also limited by and trapped in this day.
Basho's Haibun is a description of his dangerous 1500 mile journey through Edo Japan in which he says that everyday is a journey, and the journey itself home. Noboyuki Yuasa wrote that "Basho had been casting away his earthly attachments...prior to his journey, and now he had nothing else to cast away but his own self...." (see Wikipedia entry on Oku no Hosomichi.)
There are other parallels - the sense of sabi (aloneness) in both books, the structure of Haiku itself with images on either side of a kirji, or cutting word, the change in Basho's poetry that occurred after his trip, etc.
Noboyuki Yuasa wrote that Basho's Narrow road to the Deep North was "a study in eternity and a monument set up against the flow of time". I defer to you whether Flanagan's book is this also. ( )
1 vote markm2315 | Jul 1, 2023 |
As I read this book the word I felt was "masterly." Flanagan seemed in complete control of his story and presentation.

Spoilers Abound.
But, after all, there are perhaps problems. I guess the fact that he couldn't say Hello when he saw her is the most clear evidence of the destruction his life wrought on him. I didn't find the set pieces convincing -- the one where he goes into the fire to save his family, the one where we find out that Darky was his nephew.
I'm surprised I let myself read it. Some of it will stay with me for a long time. (I watch baseball and I see Shohei's sweet face in the New Balance ad several times a day, but the logic of the book doesn't allow for much humanity.)
The characters are unknowable, that's part of the point I think.
  franoscar | Apr 27, 2023 |
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. ( )
1 vote Anita_Pomerantz | Mar 23, 2023 |
Showing 1-5 of 142 (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.
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
Publisher's editors
Original language
Canonical DDC/MDS
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Wikipedia in English (1)

"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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