Sunday, November 02, 2014

"The Narrow Road to the Deep North", a comment on Richard Flanagan's novel

Amazon had enticed me to purchase this book a week before it became widely known and won the Man Booker prize for fiction in mid-October.  I started reading the book at the time of purchase and was immediately blitzed by attention getting and unexpected phrases, even as I tried to sort out what was going on.  Examples of phrases in the first 15 pages --- "A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else."  Another --- "Whatever they called him --- hero, coward, fraud --- all of it now seemed less and less to do with him... He was not unaware of his critics.  Mostly he found himself in agreement with them.  His fame seemed to him a failure of perception on the part of others.  He had avoided what he regarded as some obvious errors of life, such as politics and golf...He could still even shock himself, - the ease and alacrity with which he could lie and manipulate and deceive..."

With this book in my possession, it was freely marked up over several weeks as the sentences that stopped me with their blunt reality, their humor, or their quick turn of a phrase seemed as if they would be worth a look back.  Unlike most books read here, this was not a quick read.  While the book was relatively easy to understand, with some patience at the beginning, and the writing was wonderful,  the brutal reality of much the book's story of life in a Japanese POW camp made reading at times difficult, requiring a break here.  The evil of war, so harshly told, fell victim to newspapers, magazines, and personal issues, and the book was put down for days at a time. 

I pushed on and the book was worthwhile in many ways.  It is unusual and it is relentless to the end.  Somehow "The Narrow Road..." is also a love story, shared love, unrequited love, love betrayed, lost love, and love pretended for practical or well meaning purposes.  Flanagan's tale moves seamlessly between times and places, between the profound and the routine.  It can keep a reader on their toes.

The Man Booker judges could hardly have chosen a more perplexing but completely credible book, one that has the quality of capturing aspects of life that is more penetrating than most non-fiction and certainly more interesting because of the distance that fiction gives a writer.  Choosing a book that is so uncompromising seems to be a bold move, and a welcome one.


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