The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Title: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Author: Richard Flanagan

I chose this novel as the first book I would read simply because it was already loaded onto my smartphone and it was a full book,  not just one of the many excerpts I had downloaded and then forgotten about. But I had forgotten about it as well and didn’t realize why it was there. I had started a new job taking the commuter rail 45 minutes or more each way to Boston. I started reading the book because there are only so many suduko puzzles you can do before you start seeing numbers every time you close your eyes and the puzzles start to get harder not easier. I read the book while completely forgetting I had read part of it before.

It is a story of one character, a man shaped by a horrific war experience and facing the end  of his life and empty marriage. For the first few chapters it felt like a bad romance novel disguised as a war novel. The moment I realized I had read it previously was when I remembered talking about the scene with my former book group when Dorry met Amy. I remember talking about the scene but not reading it. The red flower in her hair-  he wants to leave but can’t quite go- she is so enchanting – what cliches. All the scenes between Amy and Dorry could be from a book with a shirtless man intertwined with a tiny blonde on the cover.It took me some time to see the purpose of this storyline. But there is actually a lot more to the book.

The app on my phone kept asking me to return to page 225 so I must have gotten that far the first time I read it although I remember nothing about it. I kept resisting the urge to obey the app and see where I left off and I pushed forward.

I admire the ambition of a writer trying the point of view of the opposite gender and vastly different cultures from his or her own. But he really got it wrong with the Ella and Amy, the only two women and the love objects in the novel. I’m not sure why he even tried because the book would be compelling enough without the artificial viewpoints of these made-up women. Much more interesting was the portrayal of the Japanese soldier mentality and culture. I have no way to judge how realistic were those portrayals and characters.

I was astounded by the unrelenting level of detail of the harsh conditions and lack of dignity and lack of respect for life of the POW camp sequences. What horrors I can barely imagine. Yet here they all are described believably page after page. Then I finally got to page 225 with 1/3 of the book left, to the point I had read to before.  I wondered if  I had stopped completely because I was just done, I couldn’t take it. Page 225 was the beating and death of Darky Gardiner. What mastery this moment was. Many pages of fierce non-ending description of one scene forcing the reader to be in a moment that seem to last forever. It captured the psychology of compliance, a subject that has to be handled with great care. For me this was the essence of the novel. Everything led to this point and everything after this point was wrap up as resolution. Now I can see why the plastic barbie love story was folded into this darkness. To provide scenes of the summer sea and a blonde beautiful woman as a contrast  and relief. Anything would do.

Despite several fabricated moments – such as the revelation that Darky was Dorry’s nephew and escaping the fire with Ella and predictable outcome – the book shines in other incredible moments  of compassion and brutality between prisoners. The wide net the author casts to capture the multiple characters, some strong and some weak, is impressive. A man gives up half his goose egg to a dying comrade when nothing matters.  Are those moments cliches as well? I am fortunate not to know.