3. Narrow Road to the Deep North vs Romance Genre

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…

***Spoiler Alert***

So if you haven’t realized over the course of the last two posts where I discuss this book, I’ll tell you now, Flanagan’s book was a tease. It’s a literary, historic fiction that won the Man Booker Prize in 2014 and was lauded by the chair of judges, A.C. Grayling with the following words:

“Some years very good books win the Man Booker Prize, but this year a masterpiece has won it.”

Hmmm….my quandary – 4 stars on Goodreads or 5? Four – he built my expectations for a romance with a HEA and didn’t deliver – or Five – surely one of the most acclaimed texts of the 21st Century, studied in schools etc, how dare I even consider less than 5 stars?

The thing is, when he went there, he out-romanced romance novels. He gives us romantic melodrama and its mores – the love interest’s husband is blown up in an explosion freeing her to be with him – the jilted fiancé lies about her rival’s death – the young POW he befriends, admires, and ultimately fails to heal is revealed as his long-lost nephew – at the eleventh hour, a mere 40 pages or so before the ending, a whim of fate presents a situation to both lovers whereby they can alter their life path with a touch, but through a lack of communication, with a reliance on presumption, they don’t.

And then there is THAT moment in the bookstore where Doriego and Amy meet. It’s a rare moment in literature these days- even romance genre fiction. You see, that moment doesn’t depend on a physical attraction. The love interest isn’t sparked by fame, or talent or individual preferences for boobs or brawn. It’s sparked by a chemistry that’s almost other worldly and that moment is teased out over paragraphs.

You know the chemistry I mean: when the orchestra comes in just before the closing credits of a movie, when the hero and heroine finally kiss, when you’re made to feel what they feel? When love hits. That moment when you realise the space between you and him/her as an electrified field of resistance, highly agitated yet ineluctable and debilitating in its yearning need for equilibrium. Just a sound, a look, a touch, may send you into frenzy or dissipate the emotion in a folly of fantasy incapable of fulfilment and you rue the fatality of an attraction you cannot contain.

Find me a romance novel where the attraction isn’t about physical appearance. There are a few, but not many. You may find it in fantasy romance but in a novel featuring mere humans it’s a little rare.

Besides THAT moment that anticipates romance early-ish in the novel there is that stretch walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge at the close of the novel – the antithesis of THAT moment and the antithesis of the romance ride. Flanagan inverts an expected, tried-and-tested romance technique in another Brechtian lesson served complete with broken expectations and denied complacency.

In a romance novel it would be at this point in the plot where the couple have reconciled and begin their life-journey together and while the reader awaits the finality of hearing either one proclaim aloud their love. It is at this point that one or other will be physically and/or emotionally taken away e.g., the heroine is kidnapped by a rival for her love. It’s the final hurdle to the HEA. Instead of giving us a hurdle to leap, in a strange coincidence Flanagan brings these lovers into close contact. They pass each other on the bridge. Silently. They recognise each other after decades. A word, a brush of a gently swinging hand, a stall in their tread, could bring them together. We watch in slow motion, incapable of prodding them out of the trajectory of their hollow lives.

Finally, there is no HEA. Not even for a war hero. Not even for a woman alone again and childless after decades presumably grieving that short lived wartime fling.

Does Flanagan convince that love existing between a couple can uplift each individual – make each person good – and make life fulfilling?

Hmmm….perhaps he needs to read a few romances.

Previous Posts in this series are:

1.The Narrow Road to the Deep North vs Tolstoy

2. The Narrow Road to the Deep North vs The Illiad

2. Flanagan’s, ‘Narrow Road to the Deep North’ vs the Illiad

Book Review – Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North

***Spoiler alert***

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…

This book could obliquely be summarised as shifting sands. It’s pushed in one direction at the same time being pulled back from another perspective and like a whirly-whirly you may have to fall out of its thrall to see what’s going on.

It begins with the main protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, and follows his stream of consciousness until he takes us back to WWII for a brief glimpse of the Middle East before ditching us into the mire of Siam. Here we spend a day with the Australian POWs toiling on Japan’s infamous human rights atrocity, the Siam to Burma railroad – the Death Railroad.

The cover of Richard Flanagan's The arrow Road to the Deep North over WWII newspaper articles and a map of Siam from before WWII.

With his beautifully poignant prose, Flanagan talks to us about human relationships – courage, stamina, small mindedness, cruelty, camaraderie, and the interrelatedness of personal plights and emotional/spiritual ones. Here the book loses its single protagonist and enfolds an ensemble of characters into its purview. This is where Flanagan excels. This is what I was expecting from him – catharsis – an overwhelming cleansing with pure admiration for the moral victory rising from enduring excruciating pain, outrage and achieving survival.

The book is written in several sections – this one can stand alone. It brings to mind Homer’s Illiad.

Both books describe episodes in wartime, including personal ones. Here each member of the POW community is placed within the framework of who they were before the war and how they relate to their fellow soldiers and antagonist in their harrowing present. Absent is a sense of God’s presence. The pagan gods of Olympus are part of the fabric of the War for Homer – whereas for Flanagan, if God exists he has forsaken the POWs. Flanagan’s heroes have only a community that has been thrust upon them by the commonality of being POWs together.

But the story doesn’t stop here. Rising above the muck of humanity is a story, or trope if you like, he has often told – one of pain, fatality, emotional distance and ultimately the redemptive power of love. He continues the stories of the soldiers he has introduced us to in the POW camp – both the Japanese persecutors and the Australian survivors.

Having experienced the indifference, the superiority and the cruelty of the Japanese officers, as a reader we expect some sort of karmic release after the war. We don’t get one. This book is not about salving the atrocities of war – it iterates the waste, the pointlessness of war and to a slightly limited degree human existence.

A downer? Yes and no. No, in that Flanagan doesn’t say that life has no value. He is saying that love – the right kind of romantic/eros love – the type we stake our hopes upon for a happily ever after – not only gives life value but it can heal and uplift the soul.

Contradictorily, there is no happily ever after in this book: although for a brief moment on the Sydney Harbour Bridge we are teased with its possibility. Dorrigo Evans, the serial cheat doesn’t get a happy ending. It’s perhaps the morally correct ending he deserves – if you believe his fiancé didn’t realise she was lying when she reported to him the death of his lover, Amy. If you believe his fiancé lied, then perhaps she too deserved the life he gave her. Their marriage was for Dorrigo more soul destroying than his experiences in the prison camp – for there his memories and thoughts of Amy sustained him.

In the denouement, if we are looking for justice and retribution via karma, we don’t get it. What we see in Nakamura, the cruel war criminal, is the redemptive power of love and family. Over time, Nakamura realises the love of the woman he chose to marry. He becomes a gentle, moral man who no one, not even himself, can reconcile with the monster he was during the war. He goes on to live a full life surrounded by family, warmth and respect – a better life than the majority of the returning Australian POWs.

Having travelled life’s path with Dorrigo can we say whether he is a good man? He was a war hero. He risked his life for his family, despite being emotionally absent and transferring to them a pattern of broken expectations to live by. He lived by the social expectations of the times – had he flouted social expectations and conventions and not married Ella and not committed his flagrant infidelities would he have been a good man?

More to the point, could he have been a good man had he married the right woman? Flanagan drives this point almost all the way home. But do we believe him? Without a Happily-Ever-After for the main character, how can a message about the redemptive power of love between man and a woman be plausible?

Perhaps Mr Flanagan needed to read a romance or two.

For a further discussion about the romance/love story elements of this book:

1.Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North vs Tolstoy

1. Flanagan’s, ‘Narrow Road to the Deep North’ vs Tolstoy

Book Review – Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North

***Spoiler alert***

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.

The cover of Richard Flanagan's The arrow Road to the Deep North over WWII newspaper articles and a map of Siam from before WWII.

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?

***spoiler alert***

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:

2. Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North vs the Illiad