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A JOURNEY TO HELL: Richard Flanagan’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”


Vintage: $32.95

I’m thrilled that Richard Flanagan has won the Man Booker Prize for this glorious novel, So well-deserved! I was puzzled he didn’t win the Miles Franklin Award this year, but no doubt this win will redress the balance. I republish my review here.

Richard Flanagan says: “I feel as if I had written all my books in order to write this book”. The Narrow Road to the Deep North has finally surfaced after five years and numerous drafts. It is an intensely personal novel: as a boy, Flanagan absorbed the stories of his father, a former prisoner of war and one of ‘Weary Dunlop’s Thousand’ who constructed the so-called Thai-Burma Death Railway during the Second World War.

These reminiscences bled into Flanagan’s very soul. The result is a novel that spans fifty years, covers war and peace, sweeps us up into an extraordinary love story, and examines both the good and evil in humanity.

At 467 pages, this is a mighty book with a big heart and I can honestly say it’s one of the most memorable I have read this year.

The title is taken from the Japanese haiku poet Basho, who is frequently quoted by the Japanese camp leaders, and as in any haiku, offers multi-layers of meaning. Ultimately, we’ll all travel the same narrow road and must pay the ferryman. Along the way, we’re moulded by memory and experience, and by shifting past and present, chapters that take place today with those from the 1940s, Flanagan builds up a picture of a singular man, and an infamous time in history.

Like Weary Dunlop, Dorrigo Evans is a surgeon. A fettler’s son who outgrows but cannot forget his working-class roots, part of the novel examines Dorrigo’s uneasiness with privilege after the war ends. He marries well, and as a war hero, lives a life of quiet celebrity after a TV documentary brings him to the nation’s attention. A regular after-dinner speaker and sought-after Board member, he feels a fraud– “his fame seemed to him a failure of perception on the parts of others.”

Flanagan contrasts Evans today –  womaniser, loner, doubter, revered public figure – with Evans in the POW camps, thrust unwillingly into the role of negotiator and intermediary with the Japanese camp officials because of his status as an officer. One of the most heart-stopping passages in the book is his plea for the sickest men to be allowed to rest, whilst having to choose 100 others – only marginally less ill – for slave labour the next day.  The haggling over numbers becomes increasingly desperate and Dorrigo knows that the men he sends off will probably never return. For Dorrigo, each man is precious, to the Japanese, each is simply a pawn for glorifying the Emperor by building the railway. Their different views of loyalty and honour make for powerful narrative parallels.

The atrocious and inhumane conditions of the camp are recreated in vivid detail, and the men themselves, with their varied backgrounds, are a microcosm of Australia, “bank clerks and teachers, counter johnnies, piners and short-price runners, susso survivors, chancers, larrikins, yobs, tray men, crims, boofheads and tough bastards.” In protecting them as best he can, Dorrigo becomes the reluctant hero of legend.

This savage account is bookended by a love story, both erotic and tender, as flashbacks reveal how Dorrigo meets and falls in love with Amy, his uncle’s much younger wife. It’s a doomed passion that flowers, fades but never dies over the course of half a century, and Flanagan gives the reader gradual glimpses of the adulterous affair that build, after a carefully-plotted final reveal, to a truly devastating conclusion that turns him into the complex, tortured man we meet at the start of the novel.  However, the women are never as fully realised as the men and even Flanagan’s portrait of Amy appears token at times.

The Narrow Road’s main concerns remain male-focused. What is the nature of suffering and power, are men who commit evil redeemable through subsequent acts of mercy? Flanagan’s camp leader Major Nakamura is a case in point, a man who recites poetry while men are slaughtered, yet who turns over a new leaf after the war, attempting to do good. Flanagan remains non-judgmental. Dividing the world into “goodies” and “baddies” is too simple. Even Dorrigo is deeply flawed. There is no objective history:  it is selective, malleable, twisted even, frequently by the minds of the men who were there. Everyone has to survive and overcome their past as best they can.

The Narrow Road has “prizewinner” and “film-ability” written all over it. It’s a memorable tribute to Flanagan’s father. Novels rarely make me weep – this one did. I cried for the POWs because Flanagan depicts them as fully-fleshed individuals, for the vicariousness of life, its injustices and disappointments. But the beauty of this novel also brought a lump to my throat. Flanagan’s prose is tessellated, honed with a silver knife. Such poetry in such desperation. Such anguish. Such love.

Read it: Because it’s one of the best Australian books published in 2013. No question.

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All men are islands: Michelle de Kretser revisited


Questions of Travel, by Michelle de Kretser

Published by: Allen & Unwin, $39.99

It’s no secret that I am a huge Michelle de Kretser fan, and would love to see Questions of Travel win the Miles Franklin Award this year. De Kretser is the bridesmaid of literary fiction, and though she’s won many prizes, has been passed over for major awards like the Man Booker and what used to be known as the Orange.  What I love about her work is the scope of her literary landscapes. She tracks down concepts, themes and ideas like a hungry hunter; satirical one moment, reflective the next, her prose is witty and elegant, her characterisations delve deep. And she respects her readers, offering them intelligent observations that make them think and question long-held values and assertions.

Questions of Travel was extensively reviewed when it appeared last year. The lives of its central characters, Ravi, who seeks asylum in Australia, and Laura, a compulsive nomad, are set out in dual, episodic narratives, each covering a similar timeline.  Laura travels the world, first just another Australian backpacker seeking new experiences, and then with increased emotional disconnectedness; Ravi longs to see the world and escape from the instability of war-torn Sri Lanka. Their life paths cross briefly when IT specialist Ravi and editor Laura work at the same travel publishing company in Sydney, then just as quickly spring apart. And though both experience the death of loved ones, longing and loneliness, this is not a conventional love story. So what is Questions of Travel about?

What strikes me on reading the reviews is that the novel resonates in many ways. For some it is a musing on the differences between the Third World and Australia; some approach it as an exploration on the nature of travel itself: does travel broaden the mind and our connectedness to others or simply reinforce cultural stereotypes? Others believe the work dissects changing patterns of society from the 1960s to 2004.

It is all of those things, of course, and more. The book’s two, seemingly contradictory, epigraphs offer a clue. The first is taken from a 1956 poem by Elizabeth Bishop: “But surely it would have been a pity/not to have seen the trees along the road/really exaggerated in their beauty.”  The second, from EM Forster’s Howard’s End: “Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle.”

De Kretser seems to favour an anti-pastoral, anti-Romantic view – arguing that the spectacular wonders of the world can be appreciated from a distance but offer little consolation in the ebb and flux of contemporary life. The expanse of the novel and its motley collection of characters, uncovers  violence, terrorism and murder, the plight of refugees, the  shallowness of modern sexual relationships, the snide humour of office politics. In London, Laura falls in love with Theo, a quintessential Romantic, the gay, self-destructive  son of German refugees who surrounds himself with kitsch objets trouvés and faux antiques, as a barricade against the passing years. In Sri Lanka and Australia, Ravi meets fellow-countrymen whose ambition and drive harness the Internet for commercial success.

It is within the world wide web that history and geography finally meet: arguably the most spectacular technological development of the 20th century, the Internet facilitates extraordinary freedom for virtual travel across time and space – yet its pathways are littered with abandoned websites, forgotten blogs and the flotsam and jetsam of dotcom failed start-ups. Questions of Travel suggests that our individual flight paths are equally littered with the debris of the human heart.

Read it: for intelligent, multi-layered narrative and superbly crafted prose.