The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan
It doesn’t seem right to say that I enjoyed this, even though I was compelled by it. It’s too harrowing to be enjoyed. Scenes of horrific beatings, of disease, of operations without anaesthetic, of fires and floods and drownings, of starvation, of the cruelty that people can, and do, inflict on one another, of the cruelty that nature inflicts, too. The fact that it is based on real events (Flanagan’s father was a survivor of the Burma Railway, and died the day the book was finished) makes it haunting, terrifying, and utterly gripping.
Reading it opened my eyes. I knew nothing, before, of the Burma Railway, beyond watching The Bridge Over the River Kwai at some point during my childhood (and remembering very little of it anyway). The only reason I picked it up in the first place was because one of our most regular borrowers returned it, handed it to me and said “this is awful and incredible, you have to read it”. So I did. And she was right.
It reminded me of The Empire of the Sun, which I read for my GCSE English exams (I got an E in that paper, but I loved the book). But it differs in that it shows the humanity on both sides, following a Korean guard and two Japanese officers as well as the Australian POWs (with particular focus on surgeon Dorrigo Evans): no single character is wholly “good” or “bad”.
It is incredibly moving, and not for the squeamish. Flanagan does not flinch away from realistic descriptions of terrible things, but shows them in excruciating detail that made me wince. More than once, I had to stop reading for a few minutes, to clear my head. But, contrary to putting me off, I think that makes it all the more powerful.
Other categories that The Narrow Road to the Deep North fits into: a classic romance, a book set in a different country, a book a friend recommended, a book that scares you, a book that made you cry, a book by an author you’ve never read before