Wednesday, January 06, 2016

A Novel of Light, Being, Remembering, and More

The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthThe Narrow Road 
to the Deep North 
by Richard Flanagan

"On the night he lay there with Lynette Maison, he had beside their bed, as he always did, no matter where he was, a book, having returned to the habit of reading in his middle age.  A good book, he had concluded, leaves you wanting to reread the book.  A great book compels you to reread your own soul.  Such books were for him rare and, as he aged, rarer.  Still he searched, one more Ithaca for which he was forever bound.  He read late of an afternoon.  He almost never looked at whatever the book was of a night, for it existed as a talisman or a lucky object--as some familiar god that watched over him and saw him safely through the world of dreams."  - Richard Flanagan

There are good books and there are great books. This book is one of the rare great books that "compels you to reread your soul".   There are many reasons for this and I will attempt to elucidate them as well as I can. In the wake of reading such a well-wrought novel as this one the thought of attempting to write about it myself is somewhat daunting. One can begin with Richard Flanagan's mesmerizing prose; prose that approaches poetry on almost every page. But the accomplishments achieved by this author go well beyond his beautiful prose style.

The story itself can be described simply as the life of a doctor, Dorrigo Evans, who is born in Tasmania in the early years of the twentieth century and grows to maturity over eight decades. The passages of his life include marriage, love affairs, life in a Japanese POW camp during World War II, and more. What sets this novel apart from others is the ability of Flanagan to tell this story while exploring the depths of questions about what it means to live a good life, the nature of love and death, good and evil, and the very nature of humanity. Throughout the narrative the issues of memory and time are demonstrated through metaphor and shifting passages from both character to character and past to future and back again.

How can I demonstrate how Flanagan accomplishes this? Perhaps the first paragraph will do to set the stage:

"Why at the beginning of things is there always light? Dorrigo Evans' earliest memories were of sun flooding a church hall in which he sat with his mother and grandmother. A wooden church hall. Blinding light and him toddling back and forth, in and out of its transcendent welcome, into the arms of women. Women who loved him. Like entering the sea and returning to the beach. Over and over." (p 3)

Some of the motifs that reappear throughout the novel are present in this opening paragraph: light, family, women, and time. There are five sections to the novel, each prefaced by an epigraph from Japanese haiku. The opening section is encapsulated in its' epigraph amazing fashion.

A bee
staggers out
of the peony

-  Basho

The epigraph provides an introduction to the poetic prose of the author and each section that follows has its own poetic epigraph.  Yet there is more than poetry in Flanagan's narrative. There are moments of communion with life like the one in 1940 when Dorrigo, on a pass from Army training, explored the city streets of Melbourne and ended up in "an old bookshop" (of course). He experiences a "moment":

"And this sense, this feeling of communion, would at moments overwhelm him. At such times he had the sensation that there was only one book in the universe, and that all books were simply portals into this greater ongoing work--an inexhaustible, beautiful world that was not imaginary but the world as it truly was, a book without beginning or end." (p 48)

But his communion with books was interrupted by the crowd below, a book launch for Max Harris's Angry Penguins, and there below among the parting crowd was a woman "with a red flower" and eyes that "burnt like the blue in a gas flame"; that woman would become the great love of his life.

There are many moments like this in the book, some are moments of great pain, some minor epiphanies of love or delight; all are rendered with care and poetic grace. There are moments that serve to define the characters in the novel, like early on when Dorrigo memorizes Tennyson's poem "Ulysses" by reading and rereading it almost endlessly.  Yet others beckon the reader, like those that depict the inner lives of those who manage to survive the war and must return to their families and communities--a world that too often does not comprehend the inner life of those who bear the scars of battle and war.  There are also moments of tenderness that, while emotional for the reader, often demonstrate the inability to connect as much as the desire to be loved.

There are limits in my ability to comment on books I have read, that have moved me to tears both of joy and heartbreak. This book surpasses those limits and thus becomes ineffable in some sense, but beautiful and grand nonetheless. I must conclude with a recommendation, one that I rarely make, that you must read this book and discover the fictional world of Richard Flanagan for yourself.

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."
-  T. S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"

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Brian Joseph said...

Great review James.

I had heard really good things about this book from several sources.

This novel sounds so impressive.

I agree that some great books center on what seems to be individuals but are really lenses i to the big issues.

James said...


Thanks for your comment. This is an impressive novel in many different ways. It deserves the accolades, Booker Prize, that it has received. I would also recommend another novel by Richard Flanagan, Gould's Book of Fish. It is more obviously post-modern in its style, but is written with equally beautiful prose.

R.T. (Tim) Davis said...

How very persuasive! But I wonder if I really want to have my soul laid bare by a novel. That is such an interesting concept/observation you make. In any case, I've read a lot of good things about this author, so I will probably give Flanagan a chance now that I've read your assessment. Thanks for the fine review/posting.