Category Archives: award-winning fiction

Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

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This book has received accolades, and been awarded the Man Booker Prize and the Prime Minister’s literary award for fiction. Mostly, it has had rave reviews.

I am a dissenter. I had very mixed feelings as I read it. I won’t attempt to summarise the plot; many others have done that.

I think the middle part of the book is the great story. Flanagan tells the gruelling story of the Australian men who slaved to build the Thai-Burma railway during the Second World War — how they were driven to death, forced to work in impossible conditions, with only the most rudimentary tools, almost no food or clothing, beaten, treated as less than human. The focus is on individual men, and their commander, Dorrigo Evans, who is a surgeon and struggles to keep them alive, to care for them when they are ill and dying. He loves them, he sacrifices himself for them, he pleads with the Japanese commander and officers to spare them from brutal floggings and forced marches and work on ‘the Line’  when they are close to death; and yet he fails in his love, because every day more and more of them die.

He is a paradoxical man, for though he is a hero, selfless in his dedication, he does not believe in his own goodness. He becomes an actor in his own life, compelled to go on trying to save his men.

Everything about their procession felt to the doctor an immense charade, with his the cruellest character: the man who proffered hope when there was none, in this hospital that was no hospital but a leaking shelter made up of rags hung over bamboo, the beds that were no beds but vermin-infested bamboo slats, the floor that was filth, and him the doctor with almost none of the necessities a doctor needed to cure his patients. He had a greasy red bandana, a cap on an angle and a dubious authority with which to heal.

The characterisation of Dorrigo and his men is unflinching, showing them in all their motley humanity, unlikely heroes. The interpretation of their heroism is interesting and challenging. For they act, it is insisted, not out of essential goodness or even compassion, but out of a collective instinct to survive. This is more so, I think, for the men than for Dorrigo, because we are allowed a space where we can believe in Dorrigo’s love and self-sacrifice, even though he does not believe in it himself.

It had been a day to die, not because it was a special day but because it wasn’t, and every day was a day to die now, and the only question that pressed on them, as to who might be next, had been answered. And the feeling of gratitude that it had been someone else gnawed on their guts, along with the hunger and the fear and the loneliness, until the question returned, refreshed, renewed, undeniable. And they only answer they could make to it was this: they had each other. For them, forever after, there could be no I or me, only we and us.

Yet, I want to insist that there is love, compassion, in their small acts of kindness and tenderness. Sometimes, in this story, I feel there is too much analysis, too much insistence on the authorial point of view, which comes through in the interpretation of the men’s actions.

A bigger question for me hangs over the stories around the central war story. Dorrigo is again the main character, deeply flawed by his own lack of self belief. This is externalised in his marriage, which is hollow, because he has fallen in love with Amy, who is married to his uncle. He loses her but never gets over her, nor she him. Where I lose belief in the narrative is  the insistent characterisation of Dorrigo as a man who acts his own life. We are told he has become a national hero, famed for his war service and for his subsequent career as a surgeon. He is a philanderer, loved not only by his wife but by the women he seduces, yet none of it has meaning for him, not even his children. I find myself wondering, if indeed he is so lacking in self-belief, how he manages to sustain the life that he does.

Another aspect of the story that disturbs me is the portrayal of the Japanese officers. We are given their points of view, both during the building of the Line, and in the lives of some of them after the war. They tell us that they act as they do because of the equation that the Emperor is a god who must be obeyed at all costs, and that the Allied prisoners are less than human and deserve to suffer and die because they acted ignobly by surrendering rather than taking their own lives. There are gestures towards redemption in the post-war lives of a couple of them, but this is left unresolved. I question Flanagan’s licence to enter the consciousness of these Others and portray their motivation. How can he, or any of us, know how it was to be them, within that culture, at that time? How can we speak for them? I wonder what a Japanese reviewer would say of this book.

There are other things about the book I am disturbed or irritated by, but that’s enough for now! Many readers may disagree with me.

 

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Bringing History to Life

I’ve just spent an entertaining half hour reading some online reviews of Hilary Mantel’s two Booker prizewinners, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. I know it’s not good form to read others’ reviews before you write your own, but I did this because it’s nearly two months since I finished Bring up the Bodies, straight after reading Wolf Hall, and short of rereading the books, (though I plan to re-read Wolf Hall as soon as I get my copy back from my daughter) I needed a refresher. It was fascinating to see how these books have polarised their readers. For every reader who raves about them, there is one who loathes them or thinks they are ambitious failures.

I did read Bring up the Bodies last year, in a library copy, and liked it well enough to finish it but was not captivated. When I was going on a long plane and bus trip at Christmas time, I bought Wolf Hall at the airport, thinking that it might put the sequel in context. I was captivated. I hate train and bus trips, but the time passed easily for me as I turned the pages. And when I got to my destination, I kept reading whenever the family was not my centre of attention. Not my usual practice of reading for about an hour before sleep, but every chance I got, morning, noon and night. I finished it while I was with my family, and rushed down to the bookshop to spend the book voucher I’d been given, and bought the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. I liked it much better the second time around, and it kept me content on the long journey home.

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I will not waste words summarising the plot, as there are so many reviews out there that do it well. Suffice it to say the central character of these two books and their projected sequel is Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s secretary who became his right head man and chief headhunter. Cromwell has been much maligned by historical accounts, whereas his rival, Thomas More, Lord Chancellor after Cardinal Wolsey, has been sanctified. Mantel gives us Thomas from the inside, taking us into his private, domestic life, his inner thoughts and calculations, as well as his scruples and regrets. By the end of Wolf Hall, I had fallen for him, and could imagine that if I had lived in his world, I would have literally done so. One of the most endearing things about him is his passion for his wife and daughters, all of whom he loses to the fever when the girls are young. He does not marry again, though he thinks about it sometimes, and it’s hinted that he is not entirely chaste. But mostly, he is too busy to give his heart or carnal desires free reign. He is warm-hearted and loyal to those he loves, including Henry, sometimes at his own expense. But he is a cunning manipulator, and when he appears to give way, he always has a Plan B. In other words, he is mostly ahead of his rivals and enemies. But his nemesis is Henry, who, as history tells us, discards him when he has no further use for him, and has him executed. But that is for Book 3.

Why do I like these books so much? I have never read anything like them. I’ve read other historical fiction, including books of the Tudor period, but none have had me spellbound as these ones did.  The main criticism reviewers have  is of the use of ‘he’ to mark who’s speaking, without identifying who ‘he’ is. This is very noticeable in Wolf Hall, and I think Mantel was much criticised for confusing her readers. So in Bring up the Bodies it is less obvious, and is often modified as ‘He, Cromwell’. I found I got quite used to it after the first few pages, and  knew Thomas’s voice and ways of thinking so well that I knew when it was his point of view and when it was not. I felt I was inside his head.

Cromwell is not a sweet man, or even perhaps a good one. He is dark and ambiguous, with a filing cabinet memory and steel will. He is an astute observer of character, ruthless when he needs to be, capable of violence, but he has his own code of ethics, and does what he needs to do to keep Henry happy and to maintain order and peace in the realm. First it means sidelining Katharine, Henry’s first wife, and manipulating the church and the constitution to enable Henry to have Anne Boleyn as his wife, crowned as queen. Then it means getting rid of Anne  by finding men who who will appear to be guilty of treason and cuckoldry, even if they are not. Here he is at the trial of the men:

He gathers himself, gathers his papers; the judges wish to confer. The case against George [Boleyn, Anne’s brother] is flimsy enough in all truth, but if the charges are thrown out, Henry will arraign him on some other matter, and it will go hard with his family… And no one has denounced the charges as incredible, at this trial or the trials that preceded it. It has become a thing one can believe, that these men would plot against the king and copulate with the queen….

Another thing I love about the books is the sensuous details of life —sights, sounds, smells, textures. Here is a description of one of Thomas’s residences, when he is at the height of his powers.

These are sounds of Austin Friars, in the autumn of 1535; the singing children rehearsing a motet, breaking off, beginning again. The voices of these children, small boys, calling out to each other from staircases, and nearer at hand the scrabbling of dogs’ paws on the boards. The chink of gold pieces into a chest. The susurration, tapestry-muffled, of polyglot conversation. The whisper of ink across paper. Beyond the walls, the noises of the city; the milling of the crowds at his gate, distant cries from the river. His inner monologue, running on, soft-voiced: it is in public rooms that he thinks of the cardinal [Wolsey, long dead], his footsteps echoing in lofty vaulted chambers. It is in private spaces that he thinks of his wife Elizabeth. She is a blur in his mind, a whisk of skirts around a corner. That last morning of her life, as he left the house he thought he saw her following him, caught a flash of her white cap. He had half turned, saying to her, ‘Go back to bed’: but no one was there. By the time he came home that night her jaw was bound and there were candles at her head and feet.

There are many superb passages like this, jewels among the more active, pragmatic prose of dialogue and events. The outside world and Thomas’s interior world are fused in  a miraculous hologram wherein the past is present, immediate, so real you can imagine stepping into this world and becoming part of it.

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Out of the ruins, life and hope emerge

It feels like ages since I’ve posted; have been deluged in work since my last post. But I have managed a little reading. First, I read Anna Funder’s All that I Am, winner of the Miles Franklin award this year. And frankly, I was disappointed. I won’t give it a lot of space here, except to make two points. I found it hard to get engaged with the story, and when I reflected why, I concluded that it seems a rather constructed (dare I say journalistic?) narrative, told in the voices of two people who were of a small group of friends who fled Germany as Hitler rose to power, and carried on resistance work from London. For me, it didn’t have the deep, compelling power of the best fiction, that makes you enter the world of the characters, get into their skins, wonder what they will think or do next. My second point is that I don’t understand why it won the one Australian literary award that is meant for a novel of the highest literary merit, that presents Australian life in any of its phases. I won’t dispute its right on literary merit; to do that, I’d need to do an in-depth review. But as for presenting Australian life, I cannot see its relevance. Sure, one of the surviving narrators ends up in Australia, and spends the last few years of her life in Sydney, but this is incidental to the theme and emotional core of the novel, which is about resistance to tyranny, and love assaulted by betrayal and loss.

Moving on: Fugitive Pieces, a debut novel by Anne Michaels, was first published in 1996 (sometimes it takes me a long time to get round to books) and was awarded the Orange Prize for fiction, I think deservedly so. It was made into a film, which I hope to track down. It, too, is about the evils of the Nazi regime. A little seven-year-old boy, Jakob Beer, in Nazi-occupied Poland, witnesses the murder of his parents and abduction of his fifteen-year-old sister, and flees from the horror. He hides in a forest near a buried village, and is rescued by Athos, a Greek geologist, who smuggles him back to his remote home on a small Greek island. Together, they live out the war, living on very little. After the war, Athos takes him to Canada, where Jakob grows up, immersed in ancient history and archaeology, and haunted by memories of the destruction of his family, and especially, of his sister, who did not die in front of his eyes, and so, in his imagination, still lives. He matures, falls in love with a wild spirit, and survives the loss of that relationship, and more, only to fall in love a second time, deeply and healingly, with a woman who understands his losses, although she has not lived them. The second part of the narrative is carried on by the son of a friend of his, who retraces Jakob’s journey, and learns the lesson that Jakob had learned towards the end of his life.

If that summary leaves holes, it’s because I am writing this review in a hurry, and I don’t want to give the whole story away. What I do want to say is that the writing, the construction of character in this book is rich, exquisite and memorable. Sometimes too rich; I found that I could only read a few pages at a time. So, for instance, Jakob as a young child, rescued, but still traumatised, haunted by his family and his lost childhood:

They waited until I was asleep, then roused themselves, exhausted as swimmers, grey between the empty trees. Their hair in tufts, open sores where ears used to be, grubs twisting from their chests. The grotesque remains of incomplete lives, the embodied complexity of desires eternally denied. Their strain poured from my skin, until I woke dripping with their deaths. Daydreams of sickening repetition — a trivial gesture remembered endlessly. My mother, after the decrees, turned away by a storekeeper, then dropping her scarf in the doorway, bending down to pick it up. In my mind, her whole life telescoped into that single moment, stooping again and again in her heavy blue coat. My father standing at the door, waiting for me to tie my laces, looking at his watch. Skipping stones on the river with Mones, wiping the mud off our shoes with the long grass. Bella turning the pages of a book.

I could give many more quotes, but will stop there, and hope that, if you haven’t read the book, you will. It is extraordinary, moving and profound, and all those other cliches that are thrown around in blurbs on book covers. But here, I feel, they are deserved.

Do let me know if you’ve read it, and if so, what you think of it.

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