Monday 4 September 2023

Review by Tracey Foster of "The Narrow Road to the Deep North" by Richard Flanagan


          Red runs through
          like a weeping wound -
          a scab twice picked.
- Tracey Foster

There's a red thread that runs deeply through Flanagan's Booker Prize-winning novel. From the very first, we are faced with a stubborn blood blister under the nail that preoccupies the protagonist Dorrigo Evans as a small child and diverts his attention away from a critical act that will come back to haunt him as a middle-aged man. The blister can only be resolved by a red-hot kitchen knife that makes a hole in the nail, a blade with 'globules of fat' that will take on much more sinister appearance during Dorrigo's time as POW in Burma. This is a story of one man's life and death and the connections he makes in between.

          A world of dew
          and in every dew drop
          a world of struggle.
- Issa

Flanagan is an expert at fluctuating between different time frames and takes us from youth to old age and any point in between, weaving a tale that is multi-layered and interconnected. Characters talk to us through the third-person narration as we begin to join up the dots. His paramour, Amy, is first seen wearing a red camellia in her hair and this becomes such a potent symbol that in later life Dorrigo has a camellia bush cut down after he moves to a new house with his family.

          A bee
          staggers out
          of the peony.
- Basho

Flanagan has a personal connection to the torturous conditions the POWs suffered during the building of the Burma railway. His own father was a POW at this time and died on the day that he finished writing the novel. These gruesome, gut-wrenching tales can only come from one who has heard of this first hand. We can only hope that these stories bear witness to a dark period of humanity that we shall never see the likes of again.

          Only the monkeys 
          can laugh - in the heat
          of the jungle.
- Tracey Foster

The title of the novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, takes its cue from the Japanese poet Basho's book of the same name. This poet's journeys and poems became the first form of haibun writing, prose interspersed with haiku. Flanagan drops haiku into the text to break up the chapters and add another layer of emotion to the story. After savagely beating a POW to near death, a guard tells Dorrigo,

          A world of pain
          if the cherry blossoms,
          it blossoms.
- Basho

Guards who dispense relentless barbaric punishments on the POW are shown swapping haiku favourites in their quiet moments displaying a discordant relationship between humanity and nature. The haikus act as rest breaks to the violence, diverting and regrouping our emotions before the next chapter. Later on, another guard is asked to reflect on his life in old age and write a traditional death poem, left behind for his loved ones. As we hope and await absolution he recites

          Winter ice
          melts into clear water.
          Clear is my heart.

This novel is a harrowing tale of love, loss, torture, pain and release. As readers, we long for resolution, a glimpse of a happy ending but as Flanagan emphasises, life is just simply not like that. We take what we can and make the best of things. Maybe that is our strength, to endure and leave behind a tale to tell. This is one tale that Flanagan was born to tell. 

About the reviewer
Tracey Foster started off in a long career as an Art and Design teacher but wanted to refocus her creative energies into writing poetry and prose. After helping others find inspiration in the world around us, she took an MA course in Creative Writing at Leicester University and has not looked back. She finds inspiration in the past and the events that shape us. Previous work has been published by Comma Press, Ayaskala, Alternateroute, Fish Barrel Review, Mausoleum Press, Bus Poetry Magazine, Wayward Literature and The Arts Council and she writes on her own blog site The Small Sublime found here.

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