Narrow Road to the Deep North (Flanagan)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North 
Richard Flanagan, 2013
Knopf Doubleday
352 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780385352857

Winner, 2014 Man Booker Prize

August, 1943. In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma Death Railway, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier.

His life is a daily struggle to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from pitiless beatings. Until he receives a letter that will change him forever.

Moving deftly from the POW camp to contemporary Australia, from the experiences of Dorrigo and his comrades to those of the Japanese guards, this savagely beautiful novel tells a story of love, death, and family, exploring the many forms of good and evil, war and truth, guilt and transcendence, as one man comes of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Longford, Tasmania, Australia
Education—B.A., Tasmania University; M.L. Oxford University
Awards—Man Booker Prize; Commonwealth Writers' Prize
Currently—lives in Hobart, Tasmania

Richard Miller Flanagan is an Australian novelist, "Considered by many to be the finest Australian novelist of his generation," according to The Economist. Each of his novels has attracted major praise and received numerous awards and honours, including the 2014 Man Booker Prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North. He also has written and directed feature films.

Flanagan is the fifth of six children, descended from Irish convicts transported to Van Diemen's Land in the 1840s. His father is a survivor of the Burma Death Railway. One of his three brothers is Australian rules football journalist Martin Flanagan. He grew up in the remote mining town of Rosebery on Tasmania's western coast.

Flanagan left school at the age of 16 but returned to study at the University of Tasmania, where he became president of the Tasmania University Union in 1983. He graduated with a B.A. with first-class honours. The following year, he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Worcester College, Oxford, where he earned a Master of Letters in History.

Flanagan wrote four non-fiction works before moving to fiction, works he has called "his apprenticeship." One of these was an autobiography of "Australia's greatest con man," John Friedrich. Flanagan ghost-wrote the book in six weeks to make money so he could write his first novel. Friedrich killed himself in the middle of the book's writing and it was published posthumously. Simon Caterson, writing in The Australian, described it as "one of the least reliable but most fascinating memoirs in the annals of Australian publishing."

His first novel, Death of a River Guide (1994), is the tale of Aljaz Cosini, river guide, who lies drowning, reliving his life and the lives of his family and forebears. It was described by The Times Literary Supplement as "one of the most auspicious debuts in Australian writing."

His next book, The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1997), which tells the story of Slovenian immigrants, was a major bestseller. Those first two novels, according to Kirkus Reviews, "rank with the finest fiction out of Australia since the heyday of Patrick White."

Gould's Book of Fish (2001), Flanagan’s third novel, is based on the life of William Buelow Gould, a convict artist, and tells the tale of his love affair with a young black woman in 1828. It went on to win the 2002 Commonwealth Writers' Prize.  

His fourth novel was The Unknown Terrorist (2006), which the New York Times called a "stunning...brilliant meditation upon the post-9/11 world."

His fifth novel, Wanting (2008) tells two parallel stories: about the novelist Charles Dickens in England, and Mathinna, an Aboriginal orphan adopted by Sir John Franklin, the colonial governor of Van Diemen's Land, and his wife, Lady Jane Franklin. As well as being a Book of the Year for both The New Yorker and The Observer, it won the Queensland Premier's Prize, the Western Australian Premier's Prize and the Tasmania Book Prize.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013) is Flanagan's sixth novel. The life story of Dorrigo Evans, a flawed war hero and survivor of the Death Railway, it won the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

Richard Flanagan has written on literature, the environment, art and politics for The Australian and international press including Le Monde, Daily Telegraph (London), Suddeutsche Zeitung, New York Times, and The New Yorker. Some of his writings have proved controversial. "The Selling-out of Tasmania," published after the death of former Premier Jim Bacon in 2004, criticized his government's relationship with corporate interests in the state. Premier Paul Lennon declared, "Richard Flanagan and his fictions are not welcome in the new Tasmania."

"Gunns Out of Control," Flanagan's 2007 essay on logging company Gunns, then the biggest hardwood woodchipper in the world, inspired Sydney businessman Geoffrey Cousins' high profile campaign to stop the building of a two billion dollar Bell Bay Pulp Mill. Gunns subsequently collapsed with huge debt, and its CEO John Gay was found guilty of insider trading. Flanagan's essay won the 2008 John Curtin Prize for Journalism.

And What Do You Do, Mr Gable?, a collection of his non-fiction works, was published in 2011.

The 1998 film of The Sound of One Hand Clapping, written and directed by Flanagan, was nominated for the Golden Bear at that year's Berlin Film Festival. He worked with Baz Luhrmann as a writer on the 2008 film Australia.

Flanagan lives in Hobart, Tasmania, with his wife, Majda (nee Smolej) and has three daughters. (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 10/14/2014.)

Book Reviews
[Flanagan] manages to convey with stomach-churning power the sheer awfulness of this chapter in World War II history…It is the story of Dorrigo, as one man among many P.O.W.'s in the Asian jungle, that is the beating heart of this book: an excruciating, terrifying, life-altering story that is an indelible fictional testament to the prisoners there. Taken by themselves, these chapters create a slim, compelling story: Odysseus's perseverance through a bloody war and his return home at last to Penelope (in this case, Ella) and his efforts, like his fellow soldiers', to see if he can put the horrors and suffering of war in the rearview mirror, and somehow construct a fulfilling Act II to a broken life.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times

Flanagan has done something difficult here, creating a character [Dorrigo] who is at once vivid and shadowy…Flanagan manages…shifts in time and perspective with extraordinary skill. They're never confusing but they are dizzying, and demand the reader's full attention in a way that reminds me of Conrad. I suspect that on rereading, this magnificent novel will seem even more intricate, more carefully and beautifully constructed…Basho wrote that "Days and months are travelers of eternity," and Flanagan's book, like the poet's own, will push us far down that path. This Narrow Road to the Deep North is both unforgiving and generous, a paradox that should earn it some fame of its own.
Michael Gorra - New York Times Book Review

Nothing since Cormac McCarthy’s The Road has shaken me like this.... This is a classic work of war fiction from a world-class writer.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

An unforgettable story of men at war.... Flanagan’s prose is richly innovative and captures perfectly the Australian demotic of tough blokes, with their love of nicknames and excellent swearing. He evokes Evans’s affair with Amy, and his subsequent soulless wanderings, with an intensity and beauty that is as poetic as the classical Japanese literature that peppers this novel.
Times (London)

A devastatingly beautiful novel.
Sunday Times (London)

A novel of extraordinary power, deftly told and hugely affecting. A classic in the making.
Observer (UK)

A masterpiece.... A symphony of tenderness and love, a moving and powerful story that captures the weight and breadth of a life.
Guardian (UK)

Elegantly wrought, measured, and without an ounce of melodrama, Flanagan’s novel is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Financial Times

A moving and necessary work of devastating humanity and lasting significance.
Seattle Times

Nothing could have prepared us for this immense achievement.... The Narrow Road to the Deep North is beyond comparison.

The book Richard Flanagan was born to write.
Economist (UK)

[A] supple meditation on memory, trauma, and empathy that is also a sublime war novel. Initially, it is related through the reminiscences of Dorrigo Evans.... Yet it is Dorrigo’s Japanese adversary, Major Nakamura, Flanagan’s most conflicted and fully realized character, whose view of the war...comes to overshadow Dorrigo’s story.
Publishers Weekly

A literary war novel with a split personality, about a protagonist who loathes his dual character.... But the novel's deep flaw is a pivotal plot development that aims at the literary heights of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary but sounds too often like a swoon-worthy bodice ripper.... [T]here's too much "her body was a poem beyond memorising" for the novel to fulfill its considerable ambition.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. What is the significance of the name of the novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North? Why might Flanagan have chosen to name his book after Basho’s well-known travelogue by the same name?

2. Consider the structure of the novel. How does the division and organization of the passages help to underscore the themes of time and memory that are revisited throughout the book? Likewise, consider how the structure allows the author to present a variety of points of view. What common themes does this help to uncover and what does it reveal about the common experiences of the characters? Does this form allow us to make any generalizations about the common human experience? Alternatively, how does the structure of the novel help to inform us about the difficulties and loneliness of the personal human experience?

3. How does the author’s "visual" portrait of the characters and the places they inhabit inform us about the state of the characters and shape our reaction to their story? Evaluate Flanagan’s choice of imagery and language. What type of imagery and language is most prevalent in the book? Does Flanagan employ much symbolism? How does this ultimately shape our experience of the book and our understanding of the major themes addressed therein?

4. The POWs are put to work—often to their deaths—as slaves building a railway for the Japanese emperor. What does this railway represent to the Japanese people and their leader? Why are they so devoted to its construction that they can be driven to violence and murder to ensure its completion? Nakamura says that the English also utilized "non-freedom" in order to ensure progress in their own country. What does this seem to indicate about the nature of progress and how do his comments change our perception of both the European and the Asian characters and what is happening on the Line?

5. Which of the characters believe that they are "good men"? How do they each define "goodness"? Does their self-analysis remain consistent throughout the story? If not, what seems to affect this? Is their self-perception in line with how we, as readers, perceive them? Does Flanagan provide us with a clear sense of who is "right" and who is "wrong" in the story—or who is "good" and who is "evil"? What does this seem to reveal about ethics and the matter of good and evil? Can we draw any conclusions at the book’s end about what it ultimately means to be a "good" person?

6. Evaluate Flanagan’s depiction of the dual nature of man. Consider representations of good and evil, of man as philosopher-poet and man as animal, of the public and private self. Does it seem to be possible for man to resist this dual nature? Does the novel indicate whether man can choose which side of his dual nature prevails over the other or is this beyond man’s control?

7. Early in the novel, Dorrigo in his old age recalls a saying: "A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else" (4). What does this saying mean? What message does the book ultimately seem to impart about memory and remembrance? Upon deciding whether to keep Rabbit’s illustrations of the war, Bonox Baker says that "memory is the true justice" (183) while Dorrigo, at this point in the story, believes it can be "the creator of new horrors" (183). Is it better to remember and even speak about one’s past or to remain silent and try to forget? What examples of this from the novel support your point of view?

8. The passages that feature Nakamura after the war reveal his struggle to understand himself and his past actions. Does he believe that the violence he committed or ordered was justified? What conclusion does he come to at the end of his life? How does his viewpoint evolve over the course of his lifetime and what influences this thought process and his understanding of himself and his actions during the war? Do any other characters also submit themselves to this process of self-analysis and philosophical inquisition? Are their experiences very similar?

9. Does The Narrow Road to the Deep North ultimately answer the question "What is a hero?" Who in the novel can be defined as a hero and what are some of the heroic actions depicted in the book? Are some of the characters more naturally suited to be leaders or is the role of leader or hero one they assume only because it is demanded of them? What proof do we find of this throughout the novel?

10. Flanagan writes: "Horror can be contained within a book, given form and meaning. But in life horror has no more form than it does meaning" (19). Does Flanagan’s novel give form and meaning to horror and suffering or does he resist this in his own work? Consider the places in the text where the themes of futility and the meaninglessness of suffering and horror surface. What does the description of the death of Darky Gardiner seem to contribute to this dialogue? Do the Europeans and the Japanese share similar views of death and suffering? If not, how do they differ and what seems to cause these differences in philosophy?

11. Evaluate the relationship between Dorrigo Evans and Amy Mulvaney. Why do they initially seem to be drawn to each other? What obstacles do they face as a couple? Could any of these obstacles have been overcome? While they are playing cards, one of Amy’s friends says, "Love is public...or it’s not love" (119). Do you agree with this statement? Can Dorrigo and Amy’s relationship be defined as love? If not, how would you categorize their relationship? When Dorrigo and Amy see each other on the bridge many years after their affair, why do they walk past each other?

12. Consider the many representations and definitions of love in the novel: love as duty, as romance, as magnetism, as friendship, as devotion, as annihilation, etc. Does one form of love seem to prevail over all of the others in the book? What can readers learn about love through their understanding of the characters’ varied experiences with love or its lack?

13. Are there any representations of faith in the novel? If so, to what are the characters faithful? There are also many examples of faithlessness and unfaithfulness to be found in the book. What causes the characters to lose their faith or to be unfaithful?

14. Many of the characters in the book share a love of poetry and literature. How does our knowledge of their love of literature alter our perception of their character? What might their interest in the arts reveal about the common human experience? Flanagan also chose to incorporate poetry by Basho, Issa, Tennyson, and others throughout the text in epigraphs and excerpts. Why might he have chosen to utilize poetry in this way?

15. Evaluate Dorrigo’s relationship with Ella. Why does Dorrigo choose to marry Ella? How does their relationship evolve—or not—over the course of the story? What does their relationship seem to indicate about love and family? Can we conclude whether or not Dorrigo truly loved Ella?

16. Keith and Ella both choose to lie to their partners. Why? How do these lies affect their lives thereafter? Do you believe that their actions were justified? Is anything gained by their dishonesty?

17. What messages does the novel impart about war and its aftermath? How do the former POWs respond to their new lives after the war is over? What are the lives of the Japanese soldiers like after the war? How has the war changed them and how has it changed life at home in each of their countries? What does this seem to imply about war and what the various characters endured throughout the war?

18. The Narrow Road to the Deep North begins with Dorrigo’s recollection of a church hall flooded with light. This image is recalled again at the story’s conclusion. Do you believe that this imagery is meant to represent some prevalent positive force—hope, faith, or optimism, for example?—or is it simply meant to provide a stark contrast to the dark material that fills the book?

19. What is the significance of Charon’s circle death poem at the start and the conclusion of the story? What does the circle represent and how does Dorrigo come to understand its meaning?

20. At the conclusion of the story, Flanagan presents us with the image of Dorrigo opening a book only to find out that the final pages have been torn out. Why do you think that the author chooses to employ this image at the story’s end?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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