2013 was a frankly ridiculous time for Australian fiction. After Burial Rites and Questions of Travel were released earlier in the year, there seemed to be a tide of extraordinary new releases leading up to Christmas. Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas and Eyrie by Tim Winton (sitting on my to-read pile) garnered a great amount of attention alongside the new Richard Flanagan novel, The Narrow Road To The Deep North. The three novels were all announced with great fervour from their publishers and sat on the Christmas list of almost every bookshop in Australia. But the most impressive part of this boon was the fact that all three novels were met with extraordinary high praise by critics and readers.
It’s a difficult thing launching into a book that has been so highly acclaimed. Forever a sceptic, I’m always worried it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype (this was my reaction to reading Mateship With Birds), or that the coverage of the novel will have given away too much of the plot, or, even worse, a part of me always fears I’ll prove to be too stupid to understand it. I purchased my copy of The Narrow Road To The Deep North after an incredibly powerful and emotional interview with Richard Flanagan at The Wheeler Centre. Then it sat by my bed, waiting for me to get around to it for a few months, as 500-odd page hardbacks are want to do, until I saw it reviewed on The Book Club on ABC TV where it was lauded as a masterpiece. The same pull that saw me buy the book in the first place escalated the book up the pile, but I was still concerned that it couldn’t live up to the hype. I soon learned that actually, a masterpiece is exactly what this is.
The Narrow Road To The Deep North, simply put, tells us the story of Dorrigo Evans, a young doctor from Tasmania who is held at a Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma railway. The novel is broken down into four parts: the first sets up the characters, giving us background into their lives, but also into the Australian character and what motivates a group of young men to enlist. Though I found this the least compelling part of the book, it importantly brings context and therefore power to the remaining sections of the story. The second part vividly paints the imprisonment, often giving graphic detail of the horrors seen and experienced by the prisoners. The bloodthirstiness of war and what it does to the human character, and the fragility that comes alongside it – both from the persecutor and the persecuted – are explored with often heart breaking consequences. For example after Dorrigo, as leader of the Australians, has been forced to make agonising decisions as to which men are fit enough to fulfil the quota of workers required for the day, a group of men set off to walk to their worksite. Along the way, one of the fittest of the group snags his boot, tearing the sole and injuring his leg. Suddenly, effortlessly, he becomes one of the vulnerable in a short, sharp twist of fate:
“Without boots or shoes most men struggled to last long. Without boots or shoes it was only a matter of days or hours before a foot was cut or wounded by bamboo thorns, rocks, the endless blasted sharp rock fragments that were the floor of the cutting. Sometimes, within hours, an infection began that in days would turn septic and within a week become a tropical ulcer, the ulcers that were leading so many men to their deaths”.
The third and fourth parts of the novel tell us of the after effects of the soldier’s experiences. It was this second half of the novel where I understood the emotional reactions to the book. From here the story grabbed me with a ferocity unlike few books I’ve read before. It is brutal and gut-wrenching, but at the same time heartbreakingly beautiful. At the end of each chapter I would exhale and pause, gathering the strength required to keep reading. Finishing The Narrow Road To The Deep North was very difficult. I reread the final chapter three times before I was willing to put the book down. As I sat and gathered my thoughts, unable to articulate what I was feeling, I thought back to the knowledge that this book is Flanagan’s ode to his father, that he grew up among the wreckage of the war in his father’s mind, and I grew more emotional still. I also recalled Marieke Hardy’s comments on The Book Club that this is a story that few of my generation know or understand. There is a lack of connection often between our grandfather’s generation and our own, and of their place in history. The Narrow Road To The Deep North will play an important role in bridging that gap, and helping us to understand Australian history in a way that doesn’t revel in nationalism or parochialism. It helps us to understand that a country’s history is made up of individual stories, of the what-if’s in life that make, break and define us. But more than that, The Narrow Road is ultimately a love story. A love between men and women, a love of family, of mates, of home, and of words. It might not be an easy read, but The Narrow Road To The Deep North will likely become an Australian classic, revered, studied and loved for decades to come.
As I eeked out the final chapters, I found myself finishing The Narrow Road in a leafy park in Hobart, spending time in the beautiful state that Richard Flanagan calls home. I have regularly visited this gorgeous island over the last few years, and each time I’m grateful for the time I spend there. This summer I again found myself lucky enough to be in Hobart for The Taste Of Tasmania food and wine festival, gorging on fresh seafood and drinking crisp cider on the edge of the harbour. Coming home with a taste for more of the sea, I cooked this tomato and leek risotto topped with gorgeous grilled prawns. An amalgam of recipes – the risotto from my friend Laura, who tops hers with mussels cooked in white wine, the spices from my partner’s Mexican Red Rice, and the prawns from the amazing Barbequed Whole King Prawns with Fennel Salt at Rumi here in Melbourne – it all somehow came together just right.