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.
**probably isn’t #justsaying