The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

19322250Fiction — print. Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. 334 pgs. Library copy.

Winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize and nominated for the 2014 Miles Franklin, Flanagan’s novel centers on a single day in a Japanese slave labor camp in August 1943 where Australian prisoners of war struggle to survive horrific and torturous conditions as they are forced to build the Burma Railway.

Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor, tries desperately to save his follow POWs in the camp while recollections of the love affair he said with his uncle’s wife haunt him. Postwar, he struggles with being hailed as a hero by the general public as guilt over what occurred both before and in the camps continues to eat away with him.

“It had been a day to die, not because it was a special day but because it wasn’t, and every day was a day to die now, and the only question that pressed on them, as to who might be next, had been answered. And the feeling of gratitude that it had been someone else gnawed in their guts, along with the hunger and the fear and the loneliness, until the question returned, refreshed, renewed, undeniable. And the only answer they could make to it was this: they had each other. For them, forever after, there could be no I or me, only we and us.” (pg. 223)

There are some very graphic moments in this book — one of the final scenes involves Dorrigo trying to save the severely gangrene leg of a fellow solider with all the blood, rot, and activities described in detail — but these were the only moments I could actually imagine in my head as I read or listened to the audiobook. The rest seemed to pass in a blur because, as one of the women in book club noted, how do you imagine “wondrous nipples”?

The jump in time periods and locations made this a particularly difficult book to listen to on audio, which is why I abandoned that particular effort near the halfway point. But, more importantly, I could never follow the characters being presented to me. The emotional impact Dorrigo’s affair on him seems contrite given how he is presented as a person who engages in multiple affairs and becomes lost in alcohol. I neither needed nor wanted him to be root worthy; I simply wanted to understand him better as a character and not feel so distant and detached from his story.

This is the third novel by Flanagan I have read, and I have come to realize that he and I are never going to click in the way I want. I can see why his body of work is so celebrated; moments in his two previous books continue to haunt me and I’m sure particular scenes from this one will as well.

But it takes such an extraordinary amount of effort on my part to finish his books — I listened to half of this one on audio whilst following along with a printed copy — that I cannot say I have ever enjoyed the experience to the same degree as others do.

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