Book Review – The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars. Why?

  • A harrowing subject. I believe this is a difficult novel to write for Flanagan considering that parts of it are borrowed from the experiences of his father as a POW in a Japanese labor camp. The middle of five parts details the harsh conditions that POWs had to survive while building the Burma Railway. Some parts are excruciating that I had to kick myself lest I vomit all over my book. Two scenes that got me reeling are the amputation of a limb rotting with gangrene using a kitchen saw in a makeshift operating room and the beating of an innocent POW in front of the other laborers. This beaten man later died by drowning in a pool of shit. The author writes these back-to-back events unflinchingly with no regard to the sensitivities of the reader.
  • I like how the Japanese and Korean officers in the camps were not depicted as evil, that they, like the POWs, are merely pawns of pawns in the grand scale of the war. After the war, we are given summaries of the fates of the “evil” characters wherein the reader gathers that these are not bad people after all. And of course, there are summaries of what happened to the “minor” characters, who are named Darky (the son of an Aborigine), Tiny (the strongest guy), Sheephead, Chum, Rooster, Rabbit, oh gosh. This somehow means to tell me that these POWs were just regular guys before the war, but really? Oh, there’s a Jack Rainbow and Jimmy Bigelow, too. Is there really only one space for a Dorrigo Evans (the protagonist)?
  • There’s a lot of meditation on what is life and what is love. As we read about Dorrigo’s life experiences that flash back and forth from the present to the past, fodder for epiphany are slipped here and there, but when you think you’ll get a good dose of existentialism, you get callow philosophies sprinkled with lyrical prose. I unfailingly cringed when rhetorical statements on love are presented. Maybe a lot of people never know love. Ugh. Maybe not. Okay. How empty is the world when you lose the one you love. Enough.
  • I think this could have been a better book had the ambition been less ambitious. If I were the editor, I would ask Flanagan to take out the love story angle because it has a wobbly connection to the heart of the novel. The whole love affair can be the subject of a different novel.
  • This could have been 4 out of 5 stars had I not been irritated by a huge chunk about the Dorrigo’s rescue of his family in a forest fire. Not only does it come after the point where Dorrigo and his lover are about to come to a resolution (or not), I also can’t make it connect to the grand design of the novel. An anticlimactic event that lacks purpose, which could have been burned by the author himself and saved the reader the misery of having to wonder what is this all about. Probably he wants to give life to the wife who has been static all throughout the novel, but isn’t it too late for that?

I admire the scope of The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It can be many things at the same time: a piece of historical fiction, a love affair doomed by the war, a man’s summation of his life, a view of life as a poem beyond good evil. And because it’s many things striving to be good at all, it somehow failed me. The writing is good, no doubt. There are moments when the book really shines, but I have no glittering takeaway from it when I read the last paragraph.

[448 pages. Trade paperback.]
[Read in February 2016.]
[Book 2 of 2016.]
[TFG Book of the Month for February 2016.]


  1. You already know my thoughts about this. Should make for an interesting discussion, I hope? Oh and why is there a coin beside the book?


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