Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
(Vintage International 2015 – Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2014) LAW-Walkover Collection (2nd Floor) PR9619.3.F525 N37 2015
The title of Richard Flanagan’s sixth novel comes from a 17th-century Japanese classic, a little book by the poet Basho that mixes a prose travel narrative with haiku in its account of a long journey on foot. Whether that journey has any meaning, whether there’s anything beyond putting one foot in front of the other . . . well, that’s another question entirely. Flanagan’s Dorrigo Evans, a young medical officer, seems at first to travel a different path. For Dorrigo — the name comes from a town in New South Wales — is a prisoner of war, among the more than 9,000 Australians who in 1943 slaved on what was called the “Death Railway.” This grave and lovely novel bears little resemblance to the one the French writer Pierre Boulle offered in the early 1950s in “The Bridge Over the River Kwai.” He has something much deeper than revisionism on his mind.
His unit surrenders to the Japanese in Java, and in postwar Australia he will become famous for his work in the prison camp, for the leadership that ensures the survival of most of the men in his command. And he hates his fame — hates the idea of virtue in general and of his own in particular, hates the idea that those months of struggle have come to define his entire life.
Flanagan has done something difficult here, creating a character who is at once vivid and shadowy. In his long postwar life, Dorrigo will see his own moments of heroism as if performed by someone else. Flanagan will cut back and forth in Dorrigo’s life: the prison camp, his childhood, a prewar love affair, and then half a century forward. Only on the book’s last pages do we understand the moment in camp that irreparably damaged Dorrigo’s life, and only then will we see that this trauma has little to do with the camp. Flanagan manages these shifts in time and perspective with extraordinary skill. I suspect that on rereading, this magnificent novel will seem even more intricate, more carefully and beautifully constructed. And those formal demands aren’t the only ones it makes.
Basho wrote that “Days and months are travelers of eternity,” and Flanagan’s book, like the poet’s own, will push us far down that path. This “Narrow Road to the Deep North” is both unforgiving and generous, a paradox that should earn it some fame of its own. (Review excerpted from Michael Gorra, New York Times Sunday Book Review)
Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
(Plume 2014 – Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014) LAW-Walkover Collection (2nd Floor) PS3556.O844W4 2013
What is the boundary between human and animal beings and what happens when that boundary is blurred are two of many questions raised in Fowler’s novel, the narration of a young woman grieving over her lost sister, who happens to be a chimpanzee.
Rosemary recounts her family history at first haltingly and then with increasingly articulate passion. In 1996, she is a troubled student at U.C. Davis who rarely speaks out loud. She thinks as little as possible about her childhood and the two siblings no longer part of her family. But during a Thanksgiving visit home to Bloomington, Ind., where her father is a psychology professor, that past resurfaces. Rosemary recalls her distress as a 5-year-old when she returned from visiting her grandparents to find her family living in a new house and her sister Fern gone. Denying any memory of why Fern disappeared, she claims to remember only the aftermath: her mother’s breakdown; her father’s withdrawal; her older brother Lowell’s accelerating anger until he left the family at 18 to find Fern and become an animal rights activist/terrorist; her own continuing inability to fit in with human peers. Gradually, Rosemary acknowledges an idyllic earlier childhood when she and Fern were inseparable playmates on a farm, their intact family shared with psych grad students. By waiting to clarify that Fern was a chimpanzee, Rosemary challenges readers to rethink concepts of kinship and selfhood; for Rosemary and Lowell, Fern was and will always be a sister, not an experiment in raising a chimpanzee with human children. And when, after 10 years of silence, Lowell shows up in Davis to describe Fern’s current living conditions, he shakes free more memories for Rosemary of her sibling relationship with Fern, the superior twin she loved, envied and sometimes resented. Readers will forgive Fowler’s occasional didacticism about animal experimentation since Rosemary’s voice—vulnerable, angry, shockingly honest—is so compelling and the cast of characters, including Fern, irresistible.
A fantastic novel: technically and intellectually complex, while emotionally gripping. (Kirkus Reviews)