Sorry (again) for the long gap between posts but rest assured, I’ve not been idle …
Last week, as well as Sunday’s gloriously sunny walking book club, when we discussed Ali Smith’s staggeringly brilliant How to be Both (which I’ve written about here), aided by a cheering bottle of Bailey’s sent courtesy of the Bailey’s Prize, I took another book club – sitting, not walking – as part of the Asia House Literary Festival.
For this, I picked Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, in part because it’s set in Asia, thereby being appropriate for the festival, but also because it seems to be a book of the moment, having won the Booker Prize, and recently out in paperback. As you might have gathered, I adore Ali Smith’s book, which was on the Booker shortlist, so for this to have trumped that, I was expecting something pretty extraordinary.
And I’m afraid I was disappointed.
But credit where it’s due: the core of The Narrow Road to the Deep North is very good indeed. For those of you who don’t know, it is largely about Australians in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp during the Second World War, building the Burma Railway. There is a great deal about the awful conditions – the rain, the heat, the dysentery, the mud and the lack of food and medical supplies, and the effect of this on the hundreds of men: ‘there were only the sick, the very sick and the dying’. Richard Flanagan’s father was a Japanese POW; in a radio 4 interview, Flanagan said how he talked to his father about the details of his experience rather than anything large, and how in his writing he describes the small-scale because ‘the truths existed in the shit and the mud and the rock and the rain’.
This focus on detail means that the POW camp is brilliantly rendered and terribly oppressive. An especially powerful passage is when Dorrigo Evans – our hero of sorts, a doctor in command of the prisoners – performs an amputation. The equipment was:
Contrived out of bamboo, empty food and kerosene tins, and bric-a-brac stolen from the Japanese – bottles, knives and tubes out of trucks – it was a triumph of magical thinking. There were candles set in reflectors made out of shaped tin cans, a steriliser made out of kerosene tins, a bamboo operating table, surgical instruments made out of honed steel stolen from engines and kept in a suitcase that sat on a table so the rats and mice and whatever else couldn’t crawl over them.
He uses a kitchen meat saw to amputate, and a table spoon to keep the pressure on the wound. A gut twine is employed to do the stitches, ‘improvised out of a pig’s intestine casings’:
These had been cleaned, boiled and pared into threads, then cleaned and boiled again, then boiled a third time before the operation. Compared to surgical ligatures, they were coarse, but they held. But this time he was sewing into nothing, wetness, a blur of tissue and blood.
Each and every thing adapted and used for surgery is described with such a close eye that you can really see it in front of you – the scene comes to life. Perhaps this is particularly apt here as the surgery needs to be so precise, and all these precise details contrast so well with the mess of it, the ‘nothing, wetness, a blur of tissue and blood’.
So that’s the good bit. If only this were the total of the book: a triumph of reconstructing life in a Japanese POW camp.
Alas, there is more … rather a lot more. There is a very hackneyed love story, which doesn’t just have embarrassing sex scenes – ‘bodies beading and bonding in a slither of sweat … her lips were parted just enough for her shallow pants to escape, a short, repetitive cascade of sighs …’ – but is also full of clunky coincidences, e.g. the pretty woman Dorrigo meets in a bookshop turns out to be his uncle’s wife.
I suppose I could forgive it the sloppy love story, but the love story is a symptom of a much larger problem with the book. It is so baggy. Rather than being about the POW camp, realised in such intense detail, Flanagan has extrapolated out from this. We get Dorrigo and his love story, but we also get moments with the other surviving POWs and the Japanese and Korean guards. And there is a seemingly entirely gratuitous bit about Dorrigo rescuing his family from a forest fire. There is just too much; it is trying to be too many things at once.
Even stranger is that after the intense detail of the POW camp, for which huge chunks of the book are given over to capturing the precise horror of it, we then get the rest of a Japanese guard’s life, for instance, in just a few pages. Having looked down the microscope, we are now give a telescope; we’ve been in backwards slo-mo and now we are in fast-forward and it feels highly discombobulating.
Presumably the multiple perspectives are supposed to foster a sense of empathy with the different characters, showing us that the guards are not pure evil because they also like poetry, and that the POWs are not pure victims they also act nastily when they suspect one amongst them of stealing a duck egg, but I don’t think Flanagan’s quite pulled it off, especially when time is thrown so playfully into the equation too.
It’s not a terrible novel, bits of it are very good, I just wish it could have stuck to those bits rather than stitching on all the baggy rest of it. And quite how it could have won the Booker Prize – especially when up against the genius of Ali Smith – is beyond me. But, no doubt, some of you feel differently, so please argue (or agree!) in the comments below – I’d love to know what you think and why I just didn’t get it.