The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan


For an instant he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilisations it created, greater than any god man worshipped, for it was the only true god. It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal. For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boot and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence.

After every page I read, I wondered how I could go on. The brutality with which the prisoners were treated in a Japanese POW camp during World War II was almost more than I could bear. Yet, Richard Flanagan’s writing is so compelling it was impossible to turn away.

I finished the book late last evening, and I was unable to sleep for most of the night. The images of ulcerated sores and amputations, lice and filth, shit-running streams of mud and one gray rice-ball for lunch whirled in my vision. Underneath it all was a tender beauty which I will not soon forget.

The prisoners became family as they endured their imprisonment. One small rice ball was shared among two after a prisoner slipped and dropped his. The men banded together as men should, regardless of difference in age or strength; they suffered identically and silently vowed to be courageous as one.

More significant to me, though, was a parallel story to the one involving the camp led by a Japanese Colonel who knew he must preserve his honor by building a railroad from Siam to Burma under any condition. This parallel story was of Dorrigo Evans, the doctor who loved Amy with the red camilla in her hair.

Why is it that the loves which are felt most passionately are destined to be crushed? We marry who we marry, and make peace with what is proper and solid and right. But the one with whom our soul is most intricately linked is never the one with whom we can live.

I don’t know why that is.

I don’t think Flanagan proposes an answer, either. He just tells us of characters whom we feel we know, and the sorrows we feel that we, too, have endured, with a master’s hand.

Some favorite quotes:

“Virtue was vanity dressed up and waiting for applause.”

“It wasn’t really the great poem of antiquity (Virgil’s Aeneid) that Dorrigo Evans wanted though, but the aura he felt around such books–an aura that both radiated outwards and took him inwards to another world that said to him that he was not alone.”

“The day their talk turned to him and Amy was the day their private passion would have transformed into public tragedy.”

“…love does not end until all its power is exorcised in misery and cruelty and obliteration as much as in goodness and joy.”

“Without love, what was the world? Just objects, things, light, darkness.”

Find more thoughts here, here, here, here, and here.

36 thoughts on “The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan

  1. Your thoughts on this confirm my impressions of this book, that despite the beauty of the prose, I don’t think I can bring myself to read it. Have you seen Claire’s (at Word by Word) post on this? If you haven’t it’s worth a look.


    • As I’ve shared with you before, novels of war and violence are very hard for me to read as well; not only because I hate to think of what man can do to man, but also because my dear son is a Marine. At any rate, I’m glad that I read this novel. There is hope and beauty in it, along with the violence, but it is also such a thought-provoking work on the character of man and his relationships. I’ll go look for Claire’s thoughts; thanks for telling me to do so.


  2. I think I’m going to need to read this. I’ve always been interested in books set during World War II, and this one sounds like it’s packing some beautiful prose, too.


  3. such a powerful book , he spoke about writing it and meeting one of the men his father had mention as being very cruel in the camp in the flesh , a chilling encounter .I must get a copy of this soon .


    • I would be fascinated in hearing Flanagan speak, and it seems clear to me now that he has actually spoken to a person his father mentioned…such details and compassion would have had to come from a first hand source. Chilling is the perfect adjective, one I should have used. I’m astonished that Richard Flanagan is my own age, at what a remarkable writer he is, and I’m afraid my post does not give him sufficient credit for what he has created in this novel. I’m glad it won the Booker, even though the subject was in so many places quite disturbing.


  4. Thanks for the link … and I loved your quotes. Great selection. I particularly remember the one about Vanity! As for human history and violence. The older I get the more I realise how unfortunately true this seems to be. My idealistic youth has been dealt a severe, I could almost say a knock-out, blow by age!


    • You did such a marvelous job on your review; you pointed out wonderful bits of insight and knowledge. I, too, see that the older I get, the more violence I notice. Although, if we look even to the Old Testament, violence is not something new. I think it’s more about what you said in that our idealistic youth tends to age. Sadly. Oh that we could keep the joy of a child!


      • You’re right of course, Bellezza, about the OT. I think the thing is that when I was young I believed humanity was making progress in terms of “civilised” non-violent behaviour but now I’m not so sure. Violence seems to be within us, though why I really don’t, fundamentally, understand.


  5. I’m very interested to read this, especially since most reviews say that it’s both unrelenting and beautiful. That usually adds up to some powerful writing. At the moment, though, I am looking forward to some comfort reads over the holidays, so this one will have to wait until next year.


    • You’re so right. The beauty and the violence to add to powerful writing. But, I completely agree that this is the season for more uplifting, Christmas’y reads. Do you have any in particular you’re dying to get to? I might have to follow suit!


      • It is a personal tradition that I always read Jane Austen between Christmas and New Year’s. This year, I’ll be reading Persuasion (again). Kid #1 is getting the complete Little House series for Christmas, and I hope we can read at least the first book together over the holidays. I’d like to read I Capture the Castle and maybe something by Louisa May Alcott. Do you have any suggestions for comfort reads?


  6. I’m about halfway in and think it’s great so far. It seems I’m a bit hardened as I don’t find it difficult to read but maybe it will get worse towards the end.
    I really like the way he tells the story. Not chronological.


    • Caroline, you hit on a most fantastic point, that the nonlinear aspect of the story/stories is so skillfully done! I was amazed at how he wove it all together, although there is one point at the end which unfortunately seemed contrived to me. We can discuss it when you get there, I would hate to spoil anything! I think you have the ability to read more violence than I can, in the Literature and War reading that you so bravely do. It doesn’t help me to “bury my head in the sand”, but sometimes, I become too afraid. It’s not that I’m unaware, though, of the horrors around us. I say them up close even from the age of 8 when I went through Anne Frank’s house and museum in Holland.


      • I suspect I know what point you mean Bellezza – but I’ll wait to see what you discuss with Caroline when she gets there. I put it down to this being, in a way though not completely, like a big baggy 19th century novel in which coincidences and contrivances occur and we let them. Fortunately, I think Flanagan knows he’s not in the 19th century so didn’t push his luck!


        • The point I was specifically thinking of had to do with Frank Gardiner (Darky Gardiner?). It seemed a bit far-fetched to me, his relationship to Dorrigo. But, maybe that’s just me being skeptical. All in all, there didn’t seem too many stretches for me to believe in the veracity of the novel. You’re right, he didn’t push his luck. (Like the stupid Gone, Girl which irritated me to no end. But, that’s another story.)


          • Yes, I agree … That’s the one. There were a couple of others, such as who Amy was, but he made them work. At least I was happy to go with it.

            I didn’t read Gone girl … I tend not to read suspense, mystery genres.


            • Yes! Who Amy was, exactly! A bit weird, but like you, I was happy to go with it.

              I like suspense, mystery, thrillers as an escape after something particularly heavy. They’re not a majority of what I read, and often, I’m so disappointed I run back to my classic/translated literature. I’m looking forward to knowing more about what you read, and what you think of it; it’s been fun to blog with you over Narrow Road.

              Liked by 1 person

      • I’m looking forward to discuss it with you.
        When I got it was hoping that for once I would find it justified that a book gets the Booker and as soon as I realized how he structured it I know it was deserved.
        I found the parts from the Jaapnese POV quite daring. But we can discuss it again once I’m finished.
        I don’t always take the descriptions of violence well. It depends. I have a hard time when it’s memoir.


        • I agree with you, the structure is one of the brilliant parts well deserving of the Booker.

          I can imagine that a memoir would be especially difficult. I wonder if I would have such difficulty reading of war if my son wasn’t a Marine. That makes it so much personal for me.


  7. Wasn’t this a beautiful, sad book? Since I finished reading it I have been struck by the notion that Flanagan never passed any sort of moral judgment on the Japanese or anyone for that matter. He told the story and left it to the reader to decide how to feel about it. I like that because it continues to make me think about the book.


    • You’re so right; Flanagan never passed any judgement, but left it up to us. However, it was interesting to me how the tables were turned after the war ended, and the Japanese officers were anything but in a position of glory or leadership. I’d say many of them were rewarded their due. I think I’ll be thinking about this book for a long, long time. I’m glad it won the Booker, which must be an awfully hard choice for the judges to decide upon.


  8. This sounds very powerful, Bellezza. Thank goodness there’s
    hope and beauty in it, along with the violence. Excellent review and quotes! I will definitely keep this book in mind.


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  11. I am presently starting to read this novel, and will finish it. I have to say there is a singularity to the Japanese temperament that I feel unpleasant, in all they do, they are so very exact….in this case, in war, which is frightening. It isn’t just Japanese, other Asian countries have this characteristic.
    Yet, many Japanese writers can elevate someone’s soul, the writing is so exquisit.


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