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Friday, November 28, 2014

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Knopf, 352 pages, $26.95

"The Narrow Road to the Deep North" is not a mystery.

It won this year's Man Booker Prize. I have had mixed feelings about some of the other Man Booker winners in the past. I kept falling asleep while reading one of the prize-winners many years ago. (I never did finish that book!) I really liked "The Luminaries," last year's winner.

Australian author Richard Flanagan has a terrific half a book. Dorrigo Evans, a Tasmanian surgeon, lives the horror of life as a POW in a Japanese work camp during WWII. The descriptions are graphic and heart-rending. The misery of the work camp will seep into your air, your mood, and your general everyday thought as long as you are reading this book. What did anyone -- prisoner or Japanese guard -- do to deserve being placed in the hellhole of Siam, building a Sisyphean railway?

The rest of the book involves Evans' life before and after the war. (Yes, this is not a spoiler alert, actually, Evans does survive.) The book switches among the various time frames. The story that holds the non-POW scenes together is a romance Evans has with his uncle's young wife. Love at first sight, super-magnets clicking in place, love as a force of nature: That overrides everything. Almost. They cannot be together for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is Evans' vacillating nature and his belief that he is not an intrinsically good person. (However, he is very passive-aggressive.)

Just as I thought about another sweeping historical classic, "Gone With the Wind," so, too, do I apply this judgment to one-half of Flanagan's book: I don't give a damn. The POW part, I laud, applaud, and congratulate Flanagan on a job well done.

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