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April/May 2015: Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Discussion in 'Book of the Month' started by canuck, Apr 9, 2015.

  1. canuck

    canuck Active Member

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    I see The Narrow Road to the Deep North was suggested back aways, it's a good suggestion and I believe it is also a harrowing read, besides I already have it on Kindle which would be my reason for reviving the post.
     
  2. 753C

    753C Active Member

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    Canuck if you are still there, I would enjoy a discussion of The Narrow Road! Sorry I had not been coming around as much and I missed yours and Peder's conversation.
    I really liked the book, with a couple of small reservations. Flannagan is a great writer and I plan to read some more from him.
     
  3. canuck

    canuck Active Member

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    Hello 753C, will have to revive it, had put it aside but will get back to it - just give me a day or so and I'll get back to you. Delighted that you are interested.
     
  4. canuck

    canuck Active Member

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    Hello again 753C - have started in again on the book and am about a third of the way through. Very diverse between the horror of the jungle and the building of the railroad and the obsessive love of Amy and Dorrigo. Really quite amazing writing. Will post further when finished, right now bed beckons. :)
     
  5. canuck

    canuck Active Member

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    753C - I have finished The Narrow Road to the Deep North and must say that I found parts of it a harrowing journey. If you want to share your thoughts on the book I'd be glad to read your take on it. I still have so much rolling around in my head that I'll have to ponder some more as to what I feel about the book. The writing is captivating and I found it hard to put down although some of it was overwhelming.
     
  6. canuck

    canuck Active Member

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    753C - I have finished The Narrow Road to the Deep North and must say that I found parts of it a harrowing journey. If you want to share your thoughts on the book I'd be glad to read your take on it. I still have so much rolling around in my head that I'll have to ponder some more as to what I feel about the book. The writing is captivating and I found it hard to put down although some of it was overwhelming.
     
  7. 753C

    753C Active Member

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    First off I have to say, that the writing is great throughout, and rises to breathtaking in many places. I think Flanagan is a rare talent in that department. The railway scenes and imagery were so descriptive and full of feeling that reading it was like watching a really tragic, but really great movie. Some of the post railway events were enough to make the eyes misty. The scene where the boys go down and free the fish from the restaurant was just perfect.
    The parts involving the Japanese officers were wonderfully executed.
    The one part I had a slight problem with was the frequency of "coincidence" and how it was used to move the story forward, or in some instances for no real reason at all.
    Other than that. Flanagan is firmly on my "to read more of" list.
     
  8. canuck

    canuck Active Member

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    Hello 753C: Yes, Flanagan's writing is extremely good. I felt that the character, Dorrigo, seemed to do quite a bit of philosophizing and the writing got a little bogged down at times. Events and circumstances seemed to happen to him, for instance, he hadn't planned to be the 'Big Fella' among the Australian prisoners, but being tall and being a doctor, he was the one the prisoners seemed to look up to and he did assume the responsibility of talking to the commander at the camp to get medicine, better conditions, food and rest for the prisoners, often with very little result. In this regard he was the hero although he would be the last to admit to that. The conditions at the camp were brutal, horrifyingly so. The Japanese had no regard for the prisoners and looked down on them, their feeling was that they should have died honourably rather than allowing themselves to be captured. This, of course, didn't stop the Japanese from using them to build the railroad and everyone was required to work whether or not they were injured, sick or not even able to stand, work could still be done while there was still life in the body. The commander was under a time constraint to get the railroad built and was prepared to beat and brutalize the men into performing the work. The conditions in the jungle, the rain, the sickness, the beatings, and the sheer brutality of the guards was dehumanizing and yet the human spirit seemed to survive, men helping other men, looking out for each other and, of course, the laggardly types who marched or rather struggled into the jungle and hid out for the day doing nothing and just showing up at the end of the day for the head count. I found all of this really hard going but it also pointed out what human beings are capable of. The writing is raw and powerful when describing various events in the prison camp and it's hard to read without feeling really depressed about what brutal people are capable of.

    One small part that showed the Japanese in a little different light was the discussion between the commander of the camp, I should look up his name but it would mean a search through the Kindle, and the visiting dignitary, his immediate superior. They have an evening of discussing Japanese poetry and it portrays them in a gentler manner.

    Then in contrast we had the prior obsessive love affair between Amy and Dorrigo which was of the steamy almost lurid love story type writing. The fact that he had seen her previously in the bookstore with the camelia in her hair and all men were following her around but she only had eyes for Dorrigo almost sounds like something out of 'one enchanted evening'. Added to that she just turns out to be married to his uncle so Dorrigo has an excuse to visit. That was a coincidence which was a bit jarring to me. I'm not sure that it really added anything to the story line except to perceive Dorrigo in a more passionate light, which light became dimmed the longer he had to be in the jungle when he was having difficulty remembering her face.

    When we see him as an elderly man doing the celebrity circuit he still seems as though he's not sure how this all happened to him. In the meantime he has married Ella although he doesn't love her but it seemed the right thing to do, another circumstance which seemed to befall him. Then we have his dalliance with several women, he in his late 70's still trying to recapture perhaps the passion he had with Amy, but it was puzzling why he continued with the search as he didn't seem to get any pleasure out of it. Ella must have been a long-suffering wife unless she was quite happy that he took his attempted pleasures elsewhere.

    I found the ending satisfying when he goes to rescue his family from the fire. He has finally found something to cling to after all his dallying around. I'm not sure that Flanagan's writing will attract me to any of his other books but time will tell.

    I'm sure there are lots of parts of the story which impacted me but this is just what has come to mind at that moment.
     
  9. 753C

    753C Active Member

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    I tend to agree with most of what you say. Here is a review I wrote of the book right after I read it when everything was fresh in my mind :

    Chronicles the life of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian Army Colonel and surgeon, captured during WWII and interred on the infamous death railway in Burma. There is more to the book than that, but in my opinion it suffers for the additions of a somewhat tedious love affair at the beginning and an even drearier and unbelievably coincidental series of events at the end.
    That said, the heart of the story is the camp and the railway, and Flanagan's writing here is mesmerizing. His prose is elegant and unforced in describing the absolute horrors of the Pow's lives. The ulcers, infections, malaria, and cholera. The gangrene, and the squalor they are forced to live in, and the savagery of the Japanese officers and Korean guards who oversee them and ultimately work them to death are illustrated unflinchingly. The story of the camp transcends ideas of good and evil. Flanagan deftly calls everything into question. All of Evans' ideas of morality, purpose, fate, justice, and compassion are subsequently examined and shattered.
    In one poignant scene Evans argues vigorously that the men should not be worked day and night, that they will die. Major Nakamura the commander of the camp, queries : "Your British Empire, you think it did not need non-freedom, Colonel? It was built bridge by bridge of non-freedom." (paraphrased)
    Yet Evans holds on. He continues to do what is right for the men under his command. In all things, he places their needs before his. He sacrifices everything he has to save them and spare them whatever suffering he can. A strange thing, because Evan's ultimately seems to believe in very little. Certainly not himself. He only holds on to his memories of his brief love affair, torn apart by his leaving for the war, and subsequently eradicated by an unfortunate turn of events relayed to him in a letter during his imprisonment.
    Eventually the surviving prisoners are freed and attempt to return to their lives. Flanagan weaves a sort of kaleidoscopic vision of the prisoners, and even the Japanese officers, as they re-enter a world that has moved on without them. It takes many of them the rest of their lives to come to terms with what happened to them. Some die without ever managing to make sense of their lives. Evan's himself is chronically disconnected from his life. It is difficult to tell if it is the horrors of the camp that haunt him, or the loss of his ideal of love.

    Overall a good book. One problem for me was the unlike-ability of the main character. I just could not bring myself to care much about him or what happened to him. He seemed "buggered" from the beginning and didn't seem to want to do much about it. This theme of inaction in the book was relentless and frustrating. Much more interesting and endearing were the men under Evan's command. Darky Gardiner, Jimmy Bigelow, Bill Rainbow and the motley rest of them were brilliantly drawn splashes of real humanity in an otherwise bleak story. Also the scenes involving the Japanese officers are intensely interesting. Their private conversations are fascinating, chilling, enviable, and pitiable all at the same time. They, just as much as the POW's, are prisoners of the railway and have to find a way to categorize this experience in a way that, even if it doesn't make sense, allows them to go on with what they feel they must do.
    My other problem with the book was it's use of chance and coincidence to propel the story forward. I like a good coincidence as much as anyone else and am not against a writer making clever use of it to a good end. But this got a little ridiculous.

    Despite my issues I can see why this book was an award winner, and Flanagan's prose is such a treat to read that, for most readers, it will probably more than make up for any detracting factors or plot problems.
    I would give it 7 stars out of ten.


    For clarification, the coincidences I was referring to are the happenstance of the woman Evans meets by chance in a library and falls for turning out to be married to his uncle. Also the revelation that Darky Gardiner was in reality his long lost nephew the whole time! Why was this built in to the story? It didn't really serve any purpose except to be unbelievable and tragic. The book had enough tragedy without it in my opinion.
    Anyway, 5 months later i still feel it is a 7 out of 10.
     

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