The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan


If you wanted to test something such as the long-term effects of growing up without enough pop culture* or even the outcome of different schools on a person’s education, you’d quickly discover that there’s no perfect experiment. A life lived without Grease and Ferris versus one that is crammed full of those things plus The Brady Bunch, ABBA, and Flock of Seagulls hair-dos may be just as rich** – who knows? Likewise, it’s impossible to say whether I’ll enjoy a book more or less in an audio format versus a hard copy. So, it was either my ears or my eyes that would first take in Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize winning epic, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I went with ears.

It’s the first audiobook I’ve listened to (yes, I have an old Kindle that has the brilliant text-to-speech function but I use it to toggle between reading and listening and the voice is always the same – expressionless). I decided to listen to Narrow Road rather than read it because although the topic of the story didn’t grab me, I felt that it would be remiss not to read an Australian Man Booker Prize winner. With that in mind and my hard copy of the book gathering dust, I borrowed the audiobook from my library (and was bolstered by the fact that Flanagan himself narrates it – an author knows what to do with their own words).

As pointless as my musings about whether Laura Branigan’s songs hold up*** or how exquisitely timed the intro lyrics to Never Ever by All Saints are, so is writing a review of The Narrow Road to the Deep North. What is there left to say about this book that hasn’t already been said? The Man Booker judges got it right – it’s an immense story; it’s a saga but without melodrama; it’s detailed, insightful and intensely personal, and yet the stage is of the grandest scale.

I found this book harrowing, extremely confronting, and terribly sad – the long-term reverberations of war are not something my generation (in Australia) has known and it did give me a new perspective on the experiences of my grandparent’s generation.

The highlights (in no particular order): the parts set in the POW camps – some descriptions made me shudder, some made me cry. The way Flanagan told some of the story from the perspective of the Japanese and Korean officers – there were lots of characters in this book but each had a distinct voice. The way in which Flanagan created so many little endings throughout the book – remarkable – nothing was left unresolved and the bit about the bugle broke me.

Also, what was said here, particularly Flanagan saying “I had known for a long time that this was the book I had to write if I was to keep on writing” – fascinating.

In summary, while listening to this book instead of reading it may have meant I didn’t savour words and sentences as usual, I did conjure pictures in my mind in a way that I don’t do when reading. That sounds weird, like I can’t multi-task… But I guess when one sense is being exercised, the others are freed a little.

5/5 I was wholly immersed in this story, clocking up 16,000 steps a day on the FitBit so that I could keep listening. Read it. Or listen to it.

*my husband
**probably isn’t #justsaying
***they do

15 responses

  1. Agreed 100%. A magnificent book, one I will never forget. Mind you, Flanagan does that to me. Have you read Death of a River Guide? Or Wanting? They’re magnificent too.

    • The only other book by Flanagan that I’ve read if the Gould Fish one, and honestly, it was so long ago (and at a time when I was under insane pressure at work) that I have no memory of it. I enjoyed Narrow Road so much that I’ll seek out more. I am wondering that now, having listened to so many hours of Flanagan’s voice, if I’ll ‘read’ in his voice?!

      • I must admit, you are tempting me to get hold of the audio book. I’ve got out of the way of listening to books because *happy dance* I don’t have the daily commute any more, but I perhaps I could amuse myself by dusting or something while I listened to this one….

      • As I’m completely new to audiobooks, I really can’t say how it rates but hearing an author read their own work is always good. I’ve been listening while I walk, cook, drive (but not dusting because it’s not something I do a whole lot of :-/ )

  2. A life lived without Grease and Ferris *shudder* I need to sit down…

    I have a copy of this on the TBR & plan to read it soon, it sounds amazing. I’ve never listened to an audio book, but I might be persuaded by this – an author who can read their own words well is tempting!

    • No Grease and Ferris – I know, I can’t even…

      I wouldn’t say I was a convert to audiobooks BUT my first experience was very good. I only listen when I go walking or if I’m driving – makes a change from music. I suspect that the experience is very much dependent on the narrator – if you don’t love the voice, It’s going to be terrible. I think it’s also best to only go for unabridged audiobooks.

  3. I actually haven’t read this yet and am not sure why. The audiobook option sounds like a good one though!

    God I loved Grease, Brady Bunch and Flock of Seagulls. I was a bit meh re Ferris B though!

  4. I tried the audiobook, but felt like my attention was wandering too often. I may have to give it another try. I like to use the audio format to help me get through heavier books.

    • Yes, I think I’ll look for audiobooks for ‘bigger’ books. I didn’t love the first in the Ferrante series but willing to give the second one a go as an audiobook. Likewise, I’ve requested The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert as an audio (because it’s so long and I didn’t like Eat Pray Love but a few friends promised me this was a different book entirely).

  5. I bought this just after it won the Booker and I’ve never got around to reading it. It’s definitely one I want to check off this year. I saw lots of people comment in reviews that they didn’t like the book because they found some of the scenes too graphic – obviously you liked the book, but did you think it was too graphic?

    • I found it quite confronting and horrifying in parts but I wouldn’t necessarily say ‘too graphic’. There are some detailed descriptions of torture of prisoners (the hardest bits to read) and detailed accounts of medical procedures which some people might balk at (I’m not squeamish). But the whole story was intense, memorable and absorbing. Not my usual kind of pick but I loved it.

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