Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

I just spent a week in New York at sales conference, which is always an adventure. The best part of the New York sales conference? There's a night when we dine with a group of editors. The absolute biggest fans of books are their editors. It's book nerd heaven. So, here's a post dedicated to a book that an editor, Diana Miller of Knopf, sent me with a "You have to read this!" note about nine months ago. Have I eagerly waited most of a year to begin pimping this novel? YES.

Richard Flanagan is an Australian (Tasmanian) writer with some serious writer credentials. His novel Gould's Book of Fish launched him into the literary world (not to mention utilized beautiful printing techniques for book-as-object enthusiasts). When I discovered that Diana had acquired his latest novel for Knopf, "batshit giddy" was one way to describe my excitement. This novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, is, simply, a modern classic. It's incredible.

Here's the premise: a doctor named Dorrigo Evans is captured by the Japanese while fighting for Australia in World War II. He's sent to a POW camp and as the officer and doctor among the POW's, he bears a great weight for the welfare of the soldiers. Also, this particular group of POW's is responsible for constructing the Burma Thailand railroad for the Japanese. If you saw The Bridge on the River Kwai, you know a version of this railroad's story. This was a railroad impossible to build, built by men in the worst physical conditions imaginable. It's known as the Death Railway. Dorrigo is a doctor without medical supplies of any kind, trying to keep men alive as they are wasting away (at best) or rotting from wounds (more likely) or beaten/executed. The Japanese work quotas ramp up even as the strength of the laborers decays. You know those gross scenes of Civil War battle hospitals? Imagine those conditions, but with a significant language/cultural barrier and tropical conditions and extra brutality. It's gripping. It's harrowing.

This isn't just another novel about World War II, though. It's also Dorrigo's love story from both before and after the war. It's a story about trust and betrayal and humanity. It's a book that's special because the Japanese, while captors and brutal, aren't reduced to just being monsters. Like the POW's, they too are men under extreme pressure in impossible circumstances. The title The Narrow Road to the Deep North tips to what Flanagan accomplishes here. This novel shares its name with a collection of poetry by Basho, the most famous haiku poet of Japan's Edo period (and in general). Basho gave up all possessions and traveled throughout the country to experience and capture the world in verse. Like Basho, Flanagan's characters are off the grid and reduced to basic experiences, and like Basho, Flanagan is able to capture majesty in all things.

Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a huge accomplishment. The author's father was a POW in the labor camp in which he framed his story, and this book shows profound respect for all of its players. When I read it those many months ago, I sent an email to a colleague calling this book "super important" and "reads like a classic, and a much older book (but it a timeless, not tired, way)." It's a book that Flanagan has been working toward throughout his career. It's a book on the Man Booker Prize longlist presently and considered a favorite. It's a war story you haven't read before. It's one of the best books of the year, period. It's a must read.


  1. Fascinating subject. I've only ever heard of this bit of history from "The Bridge on the River Kwai" so I'm excited to read this from another angle.

  2. Great historical photographs - thank you! Better than the cover of the paperback...