The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

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(Alfred A. Knopf, 2014)

A Fiction pick by Jean-Louis

The great thing about big literary prizes is that they help to bring attention to international writers many of us may not otherwise know about. Richard Flanagan is very well known in Australia, but with his 2014 win of the Man Booker Prize, the world will now get to learn about him.

In an interview I caught, Flanagan said that “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” was the novel he was born to write. He developed his writing chops with several other well-received novels but in this year’s novel he has fulfilled the challenge of a lifetime. And it is a big book–in theme and tone and achievement. Drawing on the experiences of his own family, Flanagan has crafted a novel that looks at the heart of what it means to be a human in the harshest of conditions.

Dorrigo Evans is an Australian doctor and military officer trying to save his men from disease, illness, famine, and the insane cruelty that was the slave labour camps in the Thai-Burma jungle. Australian and New Zealand forces had fallen in the battle of Singapore and are forced into labour camps to build the Thai-Burma railway in the service of the Emperor of Japan. The conditions have brought the captives and their captors to the very brink of ruin. Here they must face life’s most elemental questions. Flanagan does not spare the reader from any of the cruelty and awfulness, yet at the same time there are passages of humour and glimmers of courage.

For Dorrigo, he lives this challenge while contemplating the effects of a passionate love affair with his uncle’s young wife. The isolation of being in the camp is a cruel rupture of this part of his life. His near miraculous survival of the camp does not make life easy after the war. Flanagan asks the reader to ponder and explore the fates of many characters on all sides of the combat. Where this examination takes us may surprise you.

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