Dec 17, 2017

The Road to Roy's

Men's book club Review of The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Dinner and Acknowledgments

When our book is about starvation in a World War II POW camp, our dinner prospects dim considerably.  Last Thursday, some may well have been tempted to eat beforehand. Had they done so, they would have missed a deliciously eclectic meal.

Roy took inspiration from the Australian prisoners' working-class food fantasies (fish and chips) and their daily camp rations (a single ball of rice) and presented us with excellent versions of each.  Along with the fish and chips and the "dirty" rice balls (see below), we were treated to home-made sushi and a very commendable re-creation of Anzac biscuits for dessert.  (Who but Roy and Peter knew there were cookies named for Australian soldiers from WWI?)  Roy's Aussie-Japanese cuisine was washed down with quinine-fortified gin and tonics and beer from both countries (courtesy of Paul).

Ready for the jungle: rice balls, quinine, and lager
Our Review and Discussion of The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Flanagan's Man Booker Prize-winning novel features a protagonist riven with internal conflict.  Born in poverty but made respectable by his training as a physician, Dorrigo Evans joins the army at the outbreak of hostilities with Japan.  After officer training, he ships out--but only after he's simultaneously: 1) proposed to Ella, the daughter of a doctor; and 2) had a passionate affair with Amy, the wife of his uncle.  His unit is captured and sent to a POW camp in Burma, where most of the men (led by Dorrigo) starve or die of disease as they lay train tracks in the jungle.  After the war, Dorrigo returns to Australia where--to his dismay--he is hailed as a war hero and, later, regarded as one of the country's leading physicians.  

In our discussion, we found much to like and a little to complain about.  As to the latter, most of the complaints were about Amy.  While central to the story (she's Dorrigo's lifelong obsession), her character felt unfinished and her climactic re-appearance late in the story improbable.  

We were willing to excuse Flanagan's clumsiness with Amy because so much of the rest of the novel was superb. Everyone remarked on the exquisite writing.  From the characters' names to the language they use, Flanagan masters the idiom of time and place. In addition to the writing, it is Dorrigo's struggle with love and loss and his doubts about the man he's become that enriches Flanagan's novel.  All of his (male) characters—from fellow inmates to camp guards—play strong supporting roles in an unforgettable story about war and its aftermath.

Our Rating of The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Flanagan's prize-winning effort polled an 8 in our ratings.  Our enthusiasm for a beautifully written story was tempered by our collective desire for more or, at least, for closure.  Dorrigo's life ends abruptly but not before the reader appreciates that his public accomplishments mask a deep sense of unfulfillment.  It's too bad, as George noted, that his unfulfillment becomes ours, too.

Next Up:  A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

With all of January set aside for reading (and nothing but skiing in February), we accepted Tom's request that we read this year's book club favorite, A Gentleman in Moscow.   At 500+/- pages, it approaches our page length limit but also promises to lift our spirits in time for the new year.