Friday, 21 October 2016

Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

*Warning: Spoilers Below*

This was another book I picked up because NoveList had it as a "read-alike" for one of my favourite books last year. This is the second time I've used this as a way to pick books, and I like it, and will continue to. However, I am firmly convinced that "read-alike" is a huge misnomer. It matches, very broadly, some features of plot, but the books that I've read because I typed in first The Magicians and then Written on the Body couldn't be more different in tone or impact.

Like Written on the Body, this book is about an obsessive affair. At least, it sort of is. That's part of it anyway, but it's also about war and war atrocities and the futility of life and living on after a war, etc., etc. As opposed to the single-minded focus on another human being that comes up in Written on the Body, this is quite diffuse, the prose is not as lyrical, and the punch not as intense.

That being said, I mostly enjoyed it, right up until the last twenty pages where Flanagan half-tries a twist so fucking hackneyed I exclaimed out loud in disgust. And it's like he knows it's hackneyed, because he then tries to ignore it as soon as possible, but it's still there, and not only does it not add anything, I would argue that it openly detracts from the book as a whole.

The book travels back and forth through the life of Dorrigo Evans, a surgeon who was a prisoner of war of the Japanese, part of the forced march and then construction of a railroad that killed thousands in brutal conditions. We see scenes of his life before the war, mostly marked by his affair with his uncle's wife, during the war, fighting to keep his men alive as best he can in the midst of brutality, starvation, and disease, and after the war, when nothing really seems to matter anymore.

Of course, before the war, Dorrigo is having an affair with one woman, passionately, and after the war, with lots of women, dispassionately, so I guess that's part of the bookending - sex goes from being part of a deep connection to being something you do because you're bored in your life with your wife and no longer have added frissons of danger, death, and responsibility in every waking hour.

There's much here, particularly about life after war - if the sections during his time as a POW are stark and arresting, they're also mostly there to set up the dissatisfaction and meaninglessness of his life after the war. It verges on nihilistic, but I'm not entirely convinced that he argues that life is meaningless - more accurately, it might be that it's hard to move past trauma, and you don't do it easily, or sometimes, at all.

Because this is all so stark, so difficult, it cheapens it immeasurably when the sort-of twist changes Darky Gardiner, a man Dorrigo had to watch being beaten to death after suffering for months at the hands of the Japanese, from an example of man's inhumanity to man, or powerlessness, or how even affection can't necessarily override horrific conditions to something entirely more trite. To be precise, it is revealed that Darky Gardiner, who Dorrigo had never met before the war, was DUN DUN DUN actually his nephew.

Does that make it mean something more or less or what the everloving fuck, Flanagan? It's almost entirely glossed over and never spoken of again, so the narrative is almost as ashamed of how trite it is as I was incensed. It adds nothing, and makes this book mean less if you try to shoehorn in a "real reason to care" or some other such crap.

I can take the "Amy's still alive and he never knew." I can almost even stomach "and then they run into each other on the street when they're old but neither admits to knowing each other," even though that's verging on maudlin as well. But I cannot fucking take that that death is supposed to mean more or be changed because there's a blood relationship that he never knew about. God! Fail.

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