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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All the Light we cannot See (2014)

Anthony Doerr

The book was the runner-up to Phil Klay’s Redeployment in the 2014 National Book Awards. Redeployment was one of the best books I read last year. All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr’s second novel is also on that list. As much as I love Redeployment I would hate to have to declare which of the two is a better book.

I was probably interested in this book because it had won the Pulitzer. Looking back, I’m surprised I read it as the plot doesn’t sound like something that would necessarily appeal to me. Doerr ties together the WWII experiences of a French girl and a German boy and their interested in architecture and radio technology and experiences in occupied France and the Hitler youth. The novel shoes the bystanders in each country and describes the seaside French city as the blind protagonist learns to navigate it. There is the moral confusion of the German boy in the Hitler Youth and his complicit guilt as his technological expertise spares him the cruel punishment meted out to his classmates. In some ways, the story shouldn’t work and Doerr does almost seem to come dangerously close to overusing central set pieces but never seems too weighed down by his various themes.

Within storylines that should seem obvious at times and themes which should jar Doerr builds incredibly subtle characters and relationships just as he also slowly creates and establishes the set pieces, city and world of the 1940’s French city. The most complimentary thing I can say is that Doerr’s book and the world within it is almost painfully immersive and as, such, the climax, is as hard to bear not just for the fate of the characters but also the inevitable destruction of the city Doerr has created and the architecture, buildings and secret spots I came to know within it.

Updike (2014)

Adam Begley

I was drawn to read Updike during a spat of exploring the work of Pulitzer winners. He seemed particularly intriguing as he is one of only three to have won the Pulitzer more than once, for two of his Rabbit novels. What I’ve found weird is that no one else that I know has read him. The impression I have is that his halo has dulled and his writing is less revered than some of his contemporaries. I’m not really sure why. Perhaps because Updike is unflinching in his exploration of gender dynamics and has been accused of misogyny in detailing what, I would argue, was an attempt to paint a true character and representation of gender dynamics in middle class America. Meanwhile the works of Hemingway, Miller et al remain popular with no such defence. Perhaps it is because Updike lived longer and was so prolific in his output? Perhaps he simply occupies an uneasy intersection of realism and high literature?

I was eager to read Adam Begley’s book to try and find the answers to these questions and know more about the Updike himself. On the latter matter, at least this book succeeds. It is a straight-ahead birth to death biography of a man who wasn’t particularly interesting even while all of his adult life was spent crafting stories and articles for the New Yorker. But even if the behind the scenes of this career was a little dull Begley still details all of Updike’s not particularly interesting life with the true enthusiasm of both a scholar and fan and it is this perspective which makes this book of value.

Begley manages to capture the sheer passion which Updike poured into his craft.  He conveys just how much of a genius Updike was and what went into his creating such a prolific output. Begley deftly covers Updike’s personal life and doesn’t appear to whitewash the many affairs which Updike embarked upon. In this respect, too there is a certain kind of second act in the book which is reminiscent of the Mad Men and shows how John Updike the man was as affected by the changing nature of sixties America as his main protagonist Rabbit Angstrom.

Unfortunately, this work doesn’t delve into how the perception of Updike may have changed with time. As if there is some great fact about him that could explain what he did and how he did it from such a young age. Because… while his books are great. They are just so mundane. And that’s what he wanted?!? How was he able to create such a style? To sell it. To somehow craft such gentle slow writing into such momentous and important works? Unfortunately, again, Begley like me, is a fan and if this book lacks anything it is a critical eye. Begley is even closer than me to the subject. He has no hope of being able to explain how Updike’s books do not seem to have prospered within the modern canon or how his ideas about honesty and diving deep into the mundane have become blasé. Or how his deep love of the written word and the luxury or revelling in it is not quite as in vogue as it once was. This book covers everything about a man whose life was lived in his writing. It just fails to address why this writing seems to be fading out of fashion.