The Narrow Road to the Deep North starts slow. It’s the sort of book some readers will cast aside after the first fifty pages. That’s understandable. Even after the pace picks up, The Narrow Road... isn’t what I’d call an enjoyable read. It’s brutal and depressing. Aside from the slim hope that one can build a legacy large enough to transcend time, this novel is rather hopeless. Add to that that the novel carelessly (meticulously?) jumps around from time to time in a manner that is at times hard to follow.
And yet The Narrow Road... is worth the time. It holds in its pages some of the most beautiful and poignant war writing I have ever read. Although its focus is on Australian prisoners of war during WWII, the novel tells both sides of the war with comparative heart. As a complete work The Narrow Road... mirrors an epic tale, but it is in the tender and mesmerizing vignettes Flanagan uses to tell the whole story that the novel is its strongest.
At times perhaps the novel dragged on a bit much. It feels as though the novel is reaching its finale when it is barely half over. Every time it seems to be winding down, it finds a way to keep going. It’s exhausting and does not largely aid the story, but it is within these scenes where some of the most beautiful writing Flanagan employs can be found.
Of the three Man Booker shortlisted books I’ve read for 2014, this one stands the best chance of winning the prize. I hope I’ll be able to read the other three before the prize is announced, but that seems unlikely given stupid US publication dates. I would not be upset or surprised if The Narrow Road... won; it definitely bears all the characteristics of a strong Booker contender.