The Narrow Road to the Deep North

In a previous post, I mentioned that I was reading “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Richard Flanagan, and that I had borrowed it from a friend. In that same post, I also mentioned that I’m predisposed to like books that are borrowed from friends. Now, I have finished reading TNRDN, and whilst I really, really, really liked the novel, I am wondering a bit about this bias.

Well, you see, the friend who I borrowed it from hadn’t actually finished reading it before she lent it to me; she just read a few chapters, and then kind of gave up on it. As I was reading TNRDN, I kept telling her how great it was, and that she should persist with it and give it a second chance. But I think at times I also forgot that she hadn’t read it yet – it’s not that I tried to discuss details with her, but in my mind I had this vague impression that she’s read it in its entirety.

Anyway, I’m not sure if my bias/predisposition still works if the person whom I borrowed the book from hasn’t finished the book and/or didn’t like it. And then I’m really grateful and really want to thank her for introducing me to this book, which I will probably always associate with her irrespective of whether she ever does finish it or not, but I’m sort of wondering if it’s kind of a false connection.

Am I overthinking this? Sorry to say, but this is typical of my thought processes sometimes.

Enough rambling.

I actually really, really, liked – wait, I already said that. Ok, let me explain why. But first, a bit of background: TNRDN is an Australian WWII novel about the POWs who helped build the “Death Railway” through Thailand and Burma. It’s mostly the story of one character, Dorrigo Evans, but the stories of some of the side characters are also explored in some detail – other POWs but also those working for the Japanese military as well.

I actually didn’t know anything about the Death Railway before reading this novel, which makes me feel like this was something I needed to read (also makes me feel guilty about my lack of knowledge about Australian history, but supposedly it’s a part of the war that just didn’t get talked about very much, and still doesn’t). The novel’s probably aimed at people like me.

There’s a lot of confronting, gruesome detail in it (not of actual warfare but of things like foul diseases, and crude surgery with makeshift instruments, and the cremation of corpses) but, although some reviews on Goodreads thought it was unnecessary or over the top, I thought it felt honest and was fitting with the story being told. (I should add, though, that the vast majority of reviews on GR are very positive. It’s just that I tend to only read bad reviews (after finishing the novel myself) so that I can gain a different or more critical perspective.)

One of the things about TNRDN that my friend found quite irksome was how Flanagan does not use quotation marks at all throughout the book, so it’s a bit hard to follow. Especially in the first several chapters, I found myself having to re-read sentences because I only realised halfway through that it was actually someone talking. Not sure if I just got used to it after a while, but it stopped bothering me. I’m not entirely sure what the point of not using quotation marks was – I mean, the novel would work just as well with them – but I’m speculating that it’s something to do with the visual flow of the text (if that makes sense).

There’s a lot of poetry in the novel – actual quotes from poems, as well as references to or mentions of poems – but Flanagan’s writing, in itself, is also immensely poetic. I especially like reading novels where the writing is very powerful; and it doesn’t have to be poetic to be powerful, but this novel was both. It was very human.

Dorrigo Evans, who becomes the colonel when the original one dies of dysentery, is more of an antihero, and he struggles with his position of command during the building of the railway, and also with the fame and respect he receives after the war is over. He feels like everything is false and that he is a fraud. And yet, despite this weakness in his character (or perhaps because of it?), and despite all the adultery and his random obsessions (which, strangely, didn’t bother me that much, but apparently other readers found really off-putting), I thought Dorrigo Evans was a likeable character. Definitely a memorable character.

For some reason, I also really liked the characters Darky Gardiner and Jimmy Bigelow. Maybe it’s a sympathy thing. There probably wasn’t a character I just did not like at all. I also reckon Flanagan did a good job of incorporating the Japanese perspective into the story, as told chiefly through Nakamura, but also through Choi Sang-min (AKA the Goanna), who is actually Korean but worked for the Japanese as a prison guard on the railway. There are a number of other reasonably significant side characters, but those are the ones that stand out for me.

TNRDN is probably the best historical fiction novel I’ve ever read (but, to be fair, I don’t read a lot of historical fiction). I feel like I’ve learnt a lot without feeling like the author was trying to teach me something. As such, I don’t think you need to have a keen interest in Australian history (or history in general) in order to enjoy and appreciate this book. It probably qualifies as a “challenging read” though (challenging in a number of different ways), so you probably wouldn’t want to read it if you prefer more straightforward novels. I might re-read it one day. It would be worth re-reading.