September reading: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Only one book last month. It was long and heavy. The book and the month.

Busy at work left me mentally exhausted. And, again, the description is interchangeable with the book. I had to pause and pause again. I had to skip a particularly savage section to which I returned after I finished the book.

This novel is an amazing read. Both detailed in its focus on particular moments and sweeping across time; lyrical in language and brutal with extreme violence; rich, round believable, human characters. There’s love and romance ad human connection and disconnection.

But the Japanese treatment of POWs on the Burmese Railway is horrendous and sickening. And the end of the war couldn’t come swift and sharp enough.

Let me share an extract totally unrelated to the war:

It did not fit with the new age of conformity that was coming in all things, even emotions, and it baffled him how people now touched each other excessively and talked about their problems as though naming life in some way described its mystery or denied its chaos. He felt the withering of something, the way risk was increasingly evaluated and, as much as possible, eliminated, replaced with a bland new world where the viewing of food preparation would be felt to be more moving than reading poetry; where excitement would come from paying for soup made out of foraged grass. He had eaten soup out of foraged grass in the camps; he preferred food.

I liked this description of celebrities as people you would not wish to know.

Would the editing out of the graphic violence perpetrated by the Japanese make this a lesser novel? It definitely would make it more palatable. But the nightmares I suffered were obviously nothing compared to what the POWs suffered.

Why do the powerful always get off? Eg the emperor. And how could the Japanese soldiers , the hierarchy live with themselves? Those who got off.



9 thoughts on “September reading: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

  1. Sorry to hear you’ve had a rough month. Would you have found it more helpful to read something light, or did you like the tone of the book matching your mood? I have often wondered how people who commit atrocities can live with themselves. I suppose it must be a combination of denial (either of what they did, or of the other people’s humanity), and lack of personal responsibility (I had no choice, it was war time, etc.) ??

    • I think the book would be hard going irrespective of one’s current situation. The novel really highlights the cultural/social imperatives of the Japanese, rather than individual responsibilities. Amazing read.

  2. Somehow, I didn’t realise Richard Flanagan was Martin Flanagan’s brother (this is totally a Melbourne-centric thing.) I haven’t read any of his books but after looking through the list, I really want to read a number of them. Not sure I could stomach this if it has detailed descriptions of torture etc. At the least, I’d have to read it over summer, not in term time (would kick my insomnia into overdrive.) Very interesting review though and it’s great to have an author highlighted with such an interesting backlist that I haven’t read!

    • Never heard of Martin Flanagan, but I don’t do sport. I think all Australians should know about the Pacific aspect of WWII. (Is that a bit absolute Canon-like view of knowledge?)

  3. Mmm, now I did have this on my mental list of books to read. I bet it was brilliant and beautifully written, but I’m glad you warned me, and I will wait until a season in my life when I am feeling a little more emotionally balanced.
    Hope the rest of October is peaceful and calm for you:)

    • Peace and calm doesn’t go with my job. But yes, read this book. I don’t know if there is a right time. It will be traumatic any time. Still, wait until things in your personal life are a bit calmer.

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