Book Review – Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Before I read this book, I knew what my Goodreads review would be- 5 stars with the comment, “It’s by Flanagan, what more is there to say?” Having read it, I now know there is a lot more to say. Is it 5 stars for me? It’s ambitious and critically acclaimed, but it’s not what I expected from Flanagan and it was jarring. I had to put myself in the mindset that this is high literature and there is a method in the jarring, Brechtian approach of Flanagan’s romance. Yes, romance, but not as a romance reader would recognise.
Part of my problem sprang from the fact that I had gone on a 2 year romance reading binge before I picked it up. This book I had squirreled away for a perfect time to be swept away in torrents of pathos and catharsis like I had with The Sound of One Hand Clapping and Gould’s Book of Fish. I expected this book to weigh me down with the inadequacies of its flawed characters and then raise me up with the beauty of their unexpected forgiveness and belated understanding – or mine of the characters I had judged and exiled from the shelter of my sympathies. I expected to shed tears and have my faith reaffirmed in the power of love gently simmering away under the surface of emotional indolence.
What I didn’t expect was a romantic love story – not in any major contribution to the narrative, anyway.
I did not expect the most beautiful prose around that very special moment when love strikes that sweeps away history-yet-to-be-written and affects multiple lives around it. And then I read a bookshop in Adeliade. From hence forward I shall always equate dust motes with champagne, white tablecloths and roses as accoutrements of Romance. Having spent two years binge reading romance novels – contemporary, historic, rom-com, erotic and written over the span of the last 40 years (back to Johanna Lindsay, Judith Mc Naught, Shirley Busbee, Kathleen E Woodiwiss and through the 90s, 00s, 10s to the present) not once was there a moment in any of them like the one in the book shop when Dorrigo Evans first encounters Amy. The only other moment in literature I can compare it to is the one at the ball when Vronsky first sees Anna in Anna Karenina. (Of course you can binge read romance forever without being able to say you’ve covered it. That moment has to be somewhere but I’ve missed it, or perhaps it wasn’t presented as lyrically for it to have stayed with me.)
Dorrigo’s bookshop encounter is based on a belief in being struck by a love that is not based on physical beauty, nor wit, nor logic, nor any other trope you may read in romance, but on a charisma all of its own – its own entity, energy, power. A chemistry that is built up to, or explained away often in romance novels but rarely, it seems, exists in of itself – the chemistry separate to the psychology.
Flanagan and Tolstoy have different motives with their books. Tolstoy explores love between a man and a woman through various relationships. He demonstrates that a good relationship is a healthy relationship, sanctioned by society, where the individuals become more productive and can contribute more to society by their happy union. He asks the question can romantic love or marital love fulfil an individual’s purpose and his responsibilities to society? When the relationship is based on infatuation and the headiness of erotic love that does not transform and lift the characters to better fulfil their duty to the community – and in Tolstoy’s example – allow them to achieve meaning, as is the case with Anna’s expectations, tragedy ensues.
Knowing from the get-go that the relationship between Dorrigo and Amy is not sanctioned by society and that it is one of cheating a man who has been her harbour and his uncle, bodes ill especially when you consider that this is a historical fiction. I couldn’t help thinking of Tolstoy’s book. Flanagan doesn’t ask can erotic love alone fulfil the human condition as does Tolstoy’s. He asks repeatedly what makes a man good. What does a man need to make him good? The love of a woman, whose man is in the throes of this charisma-entity that we call love?
But this is not a Romance. Certainly not one as defined by romance critic, Jen Prokop from JenReadsRomance, nor romance writer Sarah Maclean, both of the Fated Mated podcast, on their episode, What Makes A Romance Novel a Romance Novel. In this episode I think it’s Jen who says something along the lines that the reader is left with the belief that the couple are better together than they are apart. As Dorrigo’s life plays out we are left with the conviction that had he believed Amy had survived the blast in the hotel, that he wouldn’t have married Ella and that he would have been the good man – the good husband- the good father and not believed himself a fake – the shell of a good man in the shape of a war hero.
Flanagan doesn’t allow us the comfortable ride of romance with an assured Happily Ever After. In fact he chops up the retelling of the relationship between Dorrigo and Amy in real time with future scenes from Dorrigo’s experiences in the Japanese POW camp as they build the Death Railway – a salute to Brecht – if you want to learn something from a story don’t get too emotionally involved in the storyline – alienation effect. My problem is that it’s written so beautifully, it’s hard to disentangle myself from their beautifully doomed affair. It’s an extramarital affair for Amy and that goes against my expectations for romance and makes for a harder read especially when so many romance triggers have been set off. Cutting to the prison camp and then back again heightens the jarring rhythm.
There is another part to this book that is gratifying as expected and that is the day spent with the Australian diggers in the prison camp. The themes of what makes a good man and can the love between a man and his wife transform him, continue in the years after the war is over. These will be covered in Part 2 of this review: