The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Review published on October 17, 2014.Reviewed by J Craddock

I could not have been more pleased when Richard Flanagan walked away with the Man Booker Prize 2014 for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Having read the entire shortlist, it was my clear favourite but in a list so varied and diverse and not knowing what the judges were looking for, it was certainly not a sure-fire winner. In many ways Richard Flanagan’s novel was an unassuming and little mentioned nomination on the list. Indeed, there seemed to be much more hype surrounding all of the other authors: Ali smith who was shortlisted for the third time and would have been the first Scottish woman to win; former winner Howard Jacobson going for a second success; two American authors on the list for the first time after the eligibility criteria was extended; and Neel Mukherjee who was an early and popular favourite. But reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North, it is clear why Flanagan took one of literature’s biggest honours. Whilst in many ways more traditional than the other nominees on the list and also less experimental, Flanagan’s novel is a masterpiece in narrative, a sublime evocation of war and an emotional tour de force. It is by far the most moving, affecting and powerful of all the novels and as such the result is something of a victory for good, old-fashioned storytelling and emotional integrity.

The novel centres on Dorrigo Evans and his experiences during the Second World War as a surgeon amongst Australian prisoners of war forced to work on the Death Railway in Burma under the harsh and often impossible requirements of their captors. In later life, Dorrigo becomes something of a national icon and it is in advanced years that he looks back on the horrors that have elevated him to heroism. Interweaved with this history is the story of an encompassing but thwarted love affair with his uncle’s younger wife, that gives moments of light and beauty to the savage darkness and despair of the war recollections. Indeed, although the novel offers a very different perspective on war, away from the physical battlegrounds and military combat that are the typical staples of war fiction, the prisoner of war camps and the Death Railway offers an equally atrocious, pitiable and horrendous battleground as the prisoners are subjected to the mental and physical torture of their captors. Here, men don’t only lose their lives but their hope, their self-worth and their dignity as they become mere shells of themselves. Flanagan is unflinching in his portrayal of the degradation and despair and at times the descriptions are overwhelming but such is the need to convey the brutality of the past ensuring that it cannot easily be forgotten.

The subject matter demands excellence of its author and excellence is what Flanagan achieves. A haunting, powerful and pervasive novel it is one that will get under your skin and change you for the experience of having read it. A testament of all that is great about literature.

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