62. The Narrow Road to the Deep North
This will be a difficult review to write - as I know some people have this one lined up to read.
So, this novel covers pre, during and post war experiences of several men who were involved in the building of the Thai-Burmese railway during WW2 (and one or two women 'back home' as well). In a non-linear way, the perspective shifts from narrator to narrator with ease. What would fall apart in less skillful hands is here really excellent and beautiful - each narrator brings something new to the story, and the action flicks comfortably between places and times. One might be reading about 1960s Japan, and on the next page 1920s rural Tasmania, yet at no point was this cumbersome or tacky. Flanagan doesn't change perspectives to build suspense (a la Fantasy 101), instead this dials down the drama, and re-focuses the reader on the people that are a part of this story.
In many ways, I was impressed with what this novel was not. It was not a war novel that reveled in gore, violence or horror. It was not a novel where cheap heroism triumphs over naive evil. It was not a novel where romance and resolution glossed over genuine problems and it was not a novel that overplayed emotion at the cost of honesty. The violent, and horrid scenes are sparse - and hit all the harder for it (similar to how American Psycho constructs its violence, IMO). Instead, this is an incredibly humane novel - so much effort is focused on revealing the depth to which the POW experience warped those living through it, again not in a way that is forthright, obvious or immature, but rather a really dedicated writing that explores just how truly distorting the experience was for those involved.
I felt the novel was uncliched, despite covering a topic (Japanese treatment of Australians) that has certainly been overplayed here (mid-2000s had a lot of TV, writing and documentaries about this). The writing is gorgeous - well paced, vivid, Australian and, at the right times, fluid and poetic. Flanagan retains control at all times. I haven't read any (or many) of the other novels that were nominated for the Booker Prize, but I found this novel of absolute quality.
A quick passage I really enjoyed:
"The shop slowly emptied, the staff cleaned up, locked up and left, and outside the street died away to the very occasional car slashing a puddle. Inside, they just kept talking to the old Greek about many things until it was so late that not a pub was left open. But they didn't care. They sat on. They talked about fishing, food, winds and stonework; about growing tomatoes, keeping poultry and roasting lamb, catching crayfish and scallops; telling tales, jokes; the meaning of their stories nothing, the drift of them everything; the brittle and beautiful dream itself."
Very interesting. I definitely plan to read this one before the end of the year.