If you only read one novel this year which combines the atrocities of the Burma railroad, a love story, the pathlessness of heroes, and the pall rather than glory which war cast over Australia then make it this one (also this might be the only one).

Richard Flanagan – Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013)

This is the first Richard Flanagan book I’ve read and so I’m not sure whether it’s typical of his novels. I first heard of Flanagan when he donated the $40,000 prime ministers literary prize to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. It was reported at the time as part of a political statement though it seems Flanagan is a big supporter of the foundation and probably would have made the donation irrespective. That said it was an excellent statement. The Australian government at the time were bigots pretending to make tough decisions and have since been replaced with cowards pretending to make rational

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Flanagan accepting the Prime Ministers Literary prize from Prime Minister, Tony Abbot. Image: ABC

decisions. In a country where many public figures are scared of sticking their necks out this seemed like a bombastic move and I, in turn, assumed Flanagan’s writing would perhaps be similarly provocative.

Taken simply The Narrow Road to the Deep North is not an antagonistic book. It would even be possible to skim through it and interpret it as straight award bait. The novel won the Man Booker Prize in 2014. Based on the incident of the returned prize money I wasn’t sure how Flanagan would approach the horrors suffered by Australian and Malay POWs at the hands of the Japanese as they were used as slave labour in the impossibly (and ultimately futile task) of constructing a railway through dense Jungle between Thailand to Burma

Flanagan’s novel uses more scope and perspective than past explorations of the Burma railroad

The tales of the suffering of Australian POWs has been told many times before in Australia print and, on the screen, and is often situated in such a way that it ties into the idea of the Anzac spirit and formation of national identity.

Flanagan doesn’t simply write tale of survival and the human spirit within the suffering and atrocity. He manages, convincingly, to also portray the faults and flawed humanity of the participants on both sides and adeptly jumps back and forth in time to deftly compile full portraits of his key players.

Flanagan uses extensive research and an amazingly convincing multiple character perspective, exemplified particularly in the shift, late in the book, to the Japanese and Malay soldiers. As if designed to be read on different levels there is a tale of lost love woven through the story and I think this could be the main focus for the casual reader. I initially clung onto it as the central narrative and theme of the book. It was only later, long after reading the book that I began to appreciate how Flanagan resists capitalising on this and other stories in the novel.

There are no conclusive tales of mateship, enduring love or good versus evil. Instead the book, apparently based on the experiences of his father, provides in its margins a frank look at suffering, the faults that can make up a hero and the shadow of lives and subsequent generations lived in the wake of war.

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