Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Narrow Road to the Deep North – A Review

I like really good writing.  If I can smell the meadow, if I am soaked by the rain, if the winds tears through me and I am later gently warmed by a summer sun; if I can touch the character absorbing his or her quickened pulse, or feel his or her chilly sweat in the pit of my being; if I know the heartache just after the love, then I’m all in.  Because good writing is satisfying, I don’t fear falling to sleep cold having read passages of deprivation or human tragedy and I find the development of sexual tension between two characters that lasts 30 pages or more completely irresistible. I dig love and passion and appreciate loss.  Most of all, I like a story that speaks to me because I, or someone I know, plays an important part in the story.

In Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, we are introduced to Dorrigo Evans, destined to become a military hero and celebrated Australian surgeon.  We meet him as Evans is growing up in Tazmania, we follow him as comes of age, commits to marriage, then succumbs to something forbidden.  (Obviously, there’s a fresh, exciting – even, I would argue, intoxicating – woman involved.)  We serve with him as a World War II POW, as he struggles to hold together a decaying regiment of men enslaved by the Japanese in worse than torturous conditions charged with accomplishing the impossible or dying.  Along the way we are offered shredded glimpses of the aching torment in Dorrigo’s heart, finding it may not be his alone; for it may be equaled by the angst of both his men and their captors, each in his own way.  When, at the end of the war, he – well, some of them – find themselves free to go on living…

Do they really ever find themselves free to go on living?  What do circumstances give to or take from us?  What is universal?  Love?  Passion?  Honor?  Courage?  When one of these somehow goes away, what replaces it? 

Oh: And what of that beautiful woman?

Disclaimer:  I'm not a very literate guy - or, at least, I'm not as literate as I'd like to be.  Such are the wages I pay for not having been more attentive to Mrs. Lundin's 12th grade Lit class in high school. So I don't often get (or identify) the literary tools great authors use to make great, meaningful books.  The Narrow Road's... got 'em, however.  Days after completing it, I want so to savor the story and all of its layers that I haven't picked up something new to read and there is quite a stack on my bedside table.  I just go back and reread some of Flanagan's passages. 

Promotional lines co-opted from reviews from various sources and printed on the book cover call this "a masterpiece."  I think they may be right.  See your local, independent bookseller.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North.  Richard Flanagan, Vintage Books, 2013, $15.95  Man Booker Prize winner for 2014.

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