The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Flanagan

A novel of the cruelty of war, the tenuousness of life and the impossibility of love.

I started reading this in July/August 2014, during the summer and to begin with I was fine with reading it, but by halfway I found myself not wanting to pick it up, the scenes described, horrific, grueling, they went on for too long, they were so vivid, my insides contracted each time I picked it up.

I read reviews, entered into discussions and debate about the necessity of being so exposed to such scenes as a way of understanding what men went through in war and I am not one to avoid that, but I couldn’t balance that intellectual point of view with the sickness I felt on reading this.

I was reading it on the kindle and at 50% I decided to stop and I picked up Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth which I reviewed here, the true story of her wartime experience, some distance from the war but dealing with the effect of it, both in the hospitals where she volunteered and the letters from her fiance, brother and friends who were all fighting and who would all lose their lives.

Vera’s story brought meaning and understanding, empathy and insight, but it didn’t make me feel sick. Her life afterwards was affected by her experience in a positive way, it is a grand testament to a woman’s work and need to more than understand, but to make a contribution to try to change the world and our violent, destructive tendencies.

Richard Flanagan’s book then won the Booker Prize, so I tried again. I sped through the next 100 pages and had to pause again as that sick feeling refused to go away. So I stopped.

Today for the third and last time I picked the book up once again, but by now I could almost feel the pages of horror coming, whether it was Dorrigo trying to sew up his friends leg or watching the beating of a friend. And now I say enough. This book has many, many fans and has brought the author immense and deserved success, however, it doesn’t need my contribution and I don’t need to continue to torture myself by trying to read it, in the hope of some kind of enlightenment.

I read 65% and I am sure I missed out the redeeming parts of the book.

All QuietI leave it there and will turn to Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front instead to conclude a year of anniversary reads for WWI.

Note: This was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

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39 thoughts on “The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

  1. I have this book on my kindle. I have been wondering if it is going to hard to read, it seems like it will be. I have heard such good things about the writing though. However you are right to stop reading something that makes you feel like that.

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  2. I’ve read a good number of books on tough subjects for my global reading project, but even so every description I read of this book makes me feel like it would be too much violence for me to handle.

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  3. Thank you for your honesty. I really admire you for deciding not to read further. I have also tried to force myself to finish books i didn’t enjoy and don’t do it anymore. Why do we do that? Is it because we don’t like to think if ourselves as ‘quitters’? It is because we think it’s rude and we owe it to the authors to finish their books because we know how hard they worked? Is it guilt? I don’t know. There are just some books I simply can’t get into, or make me uncomfortable or aren’t written in a style I enjoy or I just don’t like. so why suffer?

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    • I have thought about this a lot and about books that I did finish but didn’t like. I try very hard to be a discerning reader, to be very sure before picking up a book that it will be something that will resonate or interest me or which I will get something out of, even if I think it will be a challenge.

      I don’t like to abandon books because I like to understand what it is/was that didn’t resonate. And to have an informed opinion, it usually goes without saying that one should actually read a book before sharing an opinion. But in my experience, this can slow your reading down to the point of thinking that you no longer enjoy reading or as in the case of this book, it makes you feel sick.

      So many people have written so many accolades about this book, it’s like eating an exotic food and being determined to experience what everyone has experienced, and I do know that that at least is possible – I hated olives and blue cheese until I was about 27 years old, but I used to continue to try them at every occasion, curious to know whether I was capable of having the same positive response.

      So for me, it’s about wanting to enter into the conversation, the discussion, and the need to accept that in some cases I must just bow out and watch from the sideline.

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      • Yes, I see your point Claire. But sometimes, hard as we try, it just doesn’t work for us — and that’s ok. That’s what makes life interesting. If we all liked everything we’d have nothing to talk about.

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      • Absolutely. I always learn something from them. They always make me think and think again. And I love that. Sometimes they even make me re-consider my initial impression.

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  4. Such a heartfelt post, Claire. I think you did the right thing. Unless you’re reading for the writing itself the only point in such a book is to help the reader understand rather than deaden or sicken them. Testament of Youth clearly achieves that.

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    • Thanks Susan, it was for the writing that I continued, but the price was too heavy and there are plenty of other excellent candidates to pursue for the same objective. I do have Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish on the shelf, am wondering if this might have been a better choice for me to experience his writing!

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  5. I have been looking forward to reading this …now I’m not so sure . I heard him speaking about it at the Booker event and he sounded very sincere. I think you did the right thing to stop reading if you found it distressing .

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    • Your comment makes me think about how we respond to movies and how we get to know in advance what we can and can’t watch. My son and I both have visceral responses to certain films, which I watch in amazement as my daughter doesn’t flinch and can laugh at something we suffer from.

      I don’t think it means someone is a desensitised brute because they have a high tolerance threshold to viewing/reading certain elements, perhaps it means we occupy different positions and have different strengths/weaknesses in the evolutionary spectrum. 🙂

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  6. Wow, it must have been a very raw, visceral read indeed… I don’t often have such strong reactions to a book (I certainly do to films though) – although I may in retrospect, after I finished it. Not that Remarque’s book is exactly easy reading either…

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    • I’m reading Remarque now so I will be interested to compare the two and try to understand the difference, I certainly didn’t have a problem reading Vera Brittain. It’s hard to explain when the response is so physical, but I think that’s a reflection of the skill of the writer in making the reader feel so present.

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      • Well good for you for really giving it a go Claire. An author can’t ask for more than that.

        For me though, as you know, I’m so glad I read it because although I knew that the Burma Thai railway was horrendous it wasn’t until I read Flanagan that I realise just how horrendous, how far those men were pushed. A history would have described what the men were expected to do under what conditions, but Flanagan made me feel the horror. I was gobsmacked by just how far those men were pushed, and how much they had to bear. I’m astonished that any survived the beatings, the cholera, the diarrhoea. I close my eyes and peep through fingers when I see violence in movies, I’ve been known to jump out of the seat, but I seem to be able to manage a lot in text. I think partly because I can pace myself, if it gets too much whereas it’s hard to escape a movie (unless you are at home!)

        Gould’s book of fish is a very different kettle of fish (ha!). Give it – or Wanting – a try.

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  7. I’ve got it sitting on my Kindle but haven’t even been able to bring myself to start reading it. No doubt I will at some point, but the various reviews I’ve seen have made me think my reaction would be similar to yours. I’m getting better at abandoning books – I used to force myself on and, as you say in one of your comments, actually get to the stage where it would put me off reading. I have to say that the Remarque had a similar effect on me, although I read it at school and may simply have been too young for it. We were supposed to use it as an exam text, but a significant minority of us rebelled and refused to. It put me off reading books about war for decades afterwards…

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  8. I’ll be interested to hear how you get on with All Quiet, Claire. I found it deeply affecting, almost unbearably so in parts, but it’s very well paced. The distressing sections are interspersed with quieter times, lighter moments, and I think this made a difference.

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  9. I jumped on the bandwagon and bought this after the big win, but haven’t started reading yet. In all the little snippets I’ve read about it, I’d not seen that it was as horrific as you describe – thanks for the warning.
    I think it’s good every now and then to have a book like this that reminds us what war was like back then. I hate to say it, but as a western society I think we are in danger of forgetting about what happened during the world wars – particularly the first. With each generation, the tenuous link between then and now gets weaker.
    While I don’t disagree that there is certainly some room for less horrific portrayals of war, the fact is that it is and was horrific and we should be shown that. Whether you have the stomach for it or not is another matter entirely 🙂

    As for “All Quiet…”, I read it once years ago and I’m pretty sure I cried. the 1979 film adaption is just…I think stunning is the right word. If the book doesn’t put you off too much, you should definitely watch the film. I remember being completely enamoured with the lead actor, so wonderful.

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  10. Hi Claire,

    I’ve appreciated your candid sharing of your feelings when reading Flanagan’s book. Recently there are at least three books (the other two I’m thinking of are Unbroken and The Railway Man) on this same subject, the Death Railway, and POW experience in Japanese prison camps during WWII. I think that specific historical chapter in the Pacific theatre is not as well known as in Europe with Hitler and the Holocaust, but the atrocities were no less. So in a way, it’s good that a horrific piece of history is being exposed and more importantly, those who had suffered in it are being acknowledged and their stories heard.

    I have not read Flanagan’s book but have read one review on it (posted before the Booker win was announced) that I found very thoughtful in that the reviewer had distilled the horror and graphic violence and found the book to be a love story and one with forgiveness and deep humanity. For such reasons I just might read it if I have the time in the future. Just thought you might be interested to take a look at what that blogger has to say about the book. Here’s the link to the review.

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    • Claire,
      I just found out you’ve been to this blog and have engaged in lengthy discussions with Whispering Gum about this book. So, pardon my ignorance. 😉

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    • Thanks Arti, I did read that review and commented at the time as I had half the book and put it down, that review was encouraging and so I picked the book up again, but just found the scenes all too harrowing and traumatic.

      It’s the way the author succeeds in making the reader experience the trauma, some are able to distance themselves from it as they read, as confirmed by some of the reviews I have read, whilst others absorb it with an equally violent aversion.

      I don’t think I am avoiding the knowledge, I have also heard from people whose family members were involved in this conflict who feel the same way.

      I don’t think we are anywhere near being cured of the ills of war, neither do I believe that reading this book will prevent any future cruelty, it merely warns us in case we didn’t already know it, of the depths and consequence of that which we are capable of inflicting on humanity.

      However, in reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, although she too was despondent, the effect of war changed the direction of her life in an effort to understand whether or not progress is made in the wake of war, for she returned after her service to ridicule and a lack of sympathy for her efforts from those around her. How quickly we forget.

      I am sure many people have and will read the book and find something in it for them, I think three attempts for me was sufficient to realise it just wasn’t for me.

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  11. It is a challenge when books are overly graphic, at least there is a proper context for it with the war. Subjected to such as the news provides, I think I will give this a miss as your opinion is much more valued than any newspaper critic. It is a shame to stop reading a book up but sometimes it needs to be done. I shall consign this to the pile that starts with Moby Dick.

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  12. I so respect your decision to move on, Claire. I read The Narrow Road and declared it one of the best reads of the year, but yes, it was agonizing for me at times. It does stop my heart to read the many comments above of those who’ve now decided to abandon the book without reading it, for fiction serves to bring us the stories we are in danger of losing to time and scant mention in history books. But others’ decisions are not your burden to bear- as a reader, you have only your heart to follow. Thank you for sharing this reading journey with us. I too am fascinated by examining what works and does work for me as a reader, regardless of critical or popular acclaim.

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  13. Sorry to know that you couldn’t finish Flanagan’s book, Claire. But so proud of you for persevering with it. I don’t think I will read it either. These days I am scared of picking books which have too much of graphic violence. Even if it is artistic and literary. Hope you enjoy Remarque’s book. I loved it. I will look forward to hearing your thoughts on it. Happy reading!

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  14. Now I understand the tweeter link you posted about ” finishing a book’ like it or not!
    Stranger in a Strange Land ( Heinlein) was my most agonizing read. I went into ecomodus = skimmed the first lines of paragraphs and read the last sentence of the chapter. I know the feeling…don’t waste your time. Good news…you have a great point of comparison for All Quite on Western Front and Testament of Youth.

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  15. I do admire your willingness to give the book a chance, and you couldn’t be any clearer re: what kept you curious and what made you say, enough! But I confess — even after reading about all the attention it has received, I found myself more interested in the Basho book that give Flanagan his title.

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  16. And now I have a wonderful new blog to visit. If you had not visited Beyond Eastrod, I would never have known about your blog. With your permission, I will visit often. Now, as you suggested elsewhere, I need to grab my copy of Remarque’s novel. It seems like an appropriate novel for today.

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  17. Thank you for your honest review of Flanagan’s book. I felt much the same way as I read it, but did read it all the way through. I think it was amazing, but it made me very emotional as well.

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  18. So glad to have found your wonderful blog! I have just finished Flanagan’s book. I understand your reaction completely – I too was affected by the violence and brutality however I found the second half of the book (mostly set post-war with a few unexpected twist) so profound and thought provoking, I was thankful I had persevered. It’s a book not just about war (actually I loathe war stories) but about life, and how what happens to us shapes us and affects our choices to either move forward, and try to rebuild ourselves or run away from ourselves. And it shows that sometimes things happen that are so terrible that we just don’t have that choice. Still, I completely understand your decision. Books must strike the right note in each of us – that’s what they’re all about. I loved the intensity and sheer poetry of this book, the passages that lingered with me and the fact I’m still thinking about it days later. However part of me almost wishes I hadn’t read it for the same reasons. Looking forward to reading more of your wonderful blog.

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  19. Pingback: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque translated by A.W.Wheen | Word by Word

  20. Pingback: Richard Flanagan: The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2014) | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  21. I am reading this book now and am wondering whether I should continue. It’s really gruesome in places, and the love story is not that interesting to me either.

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