A short review of “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, by Richard Flanagan.

This is a long book. It appears to be based on the life of Sir Weary Dunlop, and it is written in the style of a year 12 English essay.

It is really interesting as a catalogue of the horrors of the building of the Thai Burma railroad, by mainly Australian Prisoners of War, after the fall of Singapore. It leaps about in time, but its most successful, and most tedious passages, document the inhumane treatment of the prisoners by their Japanese, and Korean guards.

While it pays due respect to the suffering of the prisoner/slaves, it appears to suffer from such a surfeit of words as to be exhausting. Not for Richard Flanagan the elegance of Henry James, who stated that the reader was the best person to provide the details of horror, by dredging his or her own fears and memories, and imagining the protagonists dealing with them; no, Mr Flanagan provides episodes so over-written that one begs for relief. In one memorable scene the guards beat a prisoner for page after page, after page, until it appears he is immortal.

There is a love story, where the hero chooses the woman he loves, based on the preference of blue eyes over brown. This great love story is at best perfunctory, and has nothing in the way of passion, or credibility. Similarly his marriage and subsequent family life are characterised by descriptions of adultery and failure, a situation miraculously redeemed by the great Hobart bushfires of 1967. He drives through road blocks onto the mountain, where his wife and children are on foot, and he finds them amidst the firestorm and the smoke.

This book is not a novel, in the sense that it is not a conscious work of art. It is almost an oral history, unedited, verbose, well meaning, and so like the writing of so many earnest Australians during the 194os and 50s.

It seems to have garnered almost universal praise as an Australian classic, which is really sad, because one page from Christina Stead can say more than this weighty volume.

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