Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

"The Narrow Road to the Deep North" by Richard Flanagan (Chatto and Windus, 2014)

When Dorrigo was 9 he saw Jackie Maguire crying - "Its slowing rhythm reminded him of a rabbit's hind legs thumping the ground as it is strangled by a snare" (p.2). Maguire had been abandoned by his wife. Later, Amy, a wife being told by her husband Keith that her lover Dorrigo was dead, "crouched on the floor, like a child. She banged her foot up and down on the tiled floor" (p.174). Reciprocally, Dorrigo's Ella told him that Amy had died. Neither report turns out to be truth.

Praised in the press as a war hero (he was a military doctor who in the end was the leader of some 500 PoWs in a jungle setting), Dorrigo separates private and public morality, regretting for decades that he hadn't married Amy. She wasn't the only woman who preyed on his mind - "For many years, Dorrigo often thought about Mrs Jackie Maguire, whose real name he never knew, whose real name was like the food he dreamt of every day in the POW camps - there and not there, pressing up into his skull, a thing that always vanished at the point he reached out towards it. And after a time he thought about her less often; and after a further time, he no longer thought about her at all" (p.7)

The narrative flicks between eras, and has some flashforwards. Initially the point of view is Dorrigo Evans'. Later we visit the heads of Amy, a Japanese officer, then some PoWs. Several of the characters spout poetry at significant moments, and several characters are thoughtful about life and love -

  • Dorrigo Evans - "A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else. In his old age Dorrigo Evans never knew if he had read this or had himself made it up" (p.3); "The more people I am with, Dorrigo thought, the more alone I feel" (p.110); "He had to project purpose and certainty, even when he had none" (p.223); "It's only our faith in illusions that makes life possible, Squizzy, he had explained, in as close to an explanation of himself as he had ever offered. It's believing in reality that does us in every time" (p.269)
  • Keith Mulvaney - "[Keith] sat leaning forward in the car, strewn over the steering wheel like a gale-fallen tree trunk, his big hands moving incessantly up and down the wheel as if it were a fortune teller's crystal ball and he was forever searching the long, straight, flat roads of Adelaide for something, an illusion that might help him live" (p.98)
  • Amy Mulvaney - "Amy Mulvaney threw herself under a wave just at the point it was about to break on her. And when she burst back up, tasting salt, the sky an unbearable brilliance, all her confusion was gone and in its place she had the strange sensation that she had surfaced into some new centre of her life. For a moment everything was in balance, everything waited" (p.120)
  • Jimmy Bigelow - "Perhaps, he wondered, he didn't make the time or space he should for love. He fitted it in, and it flitted away", (p.301)
  • Mrs Jack Rainbow - "I think you make [love]. You don't get it given to you. You make it" (p.369)

The harrowing descriptions of improvised operations aren't for the faint-hearted. I especially liked p.234-250+, the cholera tent, etc. We see how the prisoners of war cope differently - with optimism, realism, resignation, or by fantasising. After the war we're shown the prison soldiers demobbed, coping with or paying for their guilt. Then we catch up with the Australians. People on both side experience identity problems -

  • Dorrigo Evans - "He could never admit to himself that it was death that had given his life meaning" (p.338); "Even before they kissed, he once more forgot his name" (p.341)
  • Goanna - "Though he had many names - his Korean name, Choi Sang-min; the Japanese name he had been given and made to answer to in Pusan, Akira Sanya; his Australian name that the guards now called him, the Goanna - he realised he had no idea who he was" (p.348)
  • Nakamura - "And he realised that the period of no one being who they said they were and no one being what they seemed and everyone remembering only the things that could be spoken about had now ended ... he reverted to his real name" (p.350)

At times the characters are either generic or too flexible, lacking individuality -

  • characters tend to have a sound-bite paragraph where they sum themselves up
  • characters tend to quote poetry
  • characters have name/identity issues

But one could view identity problems and the comfort of old poetry as traits that typify the times and that generation. So I'm sitting on the fence.

Other reviews

  • Michael Hoffman (London Review of Books) (Dorrigo Evans – is neither formed by his experience, nor capable of his actions, which for a novel is pretty disabling. He is one character – or one character’s name – irritatingly and implausibly played by five actors ... Too many of the human ties and turns here seem implausible, unsecured, unbelievable. The vile Orientals age into gentle wisdom. ... The writing is overstuffed, and leaks sawdust. ... The Amy/Ella part refuses to have anything to do with the Burma Railway. Can a narrative strand be rejected? Like a donated organ? This one badly wants not to be in the same book. The character of Dorrigo – or is his name Alwyn? – seems to consist in being anything he is required to be)
  • Catharine Taylor (Telegraph)
  • Alex Preston (Observer)
  • Thomas Keneally (Guardian)

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