The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Normally I would not read (or listen to) a book like this as it is far from my comfort zone, centring as it does on the construction of the Thailand Burma railway by the Japanese combined with the romantic liaisons of the main character. And it is the winner of the man Booker Prize 2014. Somehow, the prize seems to be won by difficult books that can only be read by enthusiasts, selected by experts, and I just do not have that literary background. OK – so I have actually read some of the other books that have won, and enjoyed them – such as the Life of Pi and Mantel's Wolf Hall.

The book is not the easiest read. It can be confusing, especially if you are listening to it, rather than reading it. The confusion lies in the way that Flanagan weaves several strands together, but always in the same voice. And at the core is the narrative of the men on the Line. Dorrigo Evans' women, his adventures with them, their embrace and his longing for their bodies are in sharp contrast to the brutal reality of Japanese occupied Burma and the fate of the POWs. It is this that makes the story bearable. Every time you feel enough, you lurch forward or back into the arms of a woman.

And then there is the novel's title. The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Written by the poet Matsuo Basho, the work is a poetic diary of his travels through Japan in the 17th Century, and as such is one of the major texts of classical Japanese literature, the soul of Japan. Stark contrast to the reality in Burma and the war which devoured the humanity of all in its wake. At one point Dorrigo thinks "The world is. It just is" There is no rhyme or reason for its being. And here we find the existentialism and humanism of Flanagan's Dorrigo merging with the Zen Buddhism of Basho. Then there is Japan. There are two Japans. The first is the noble vision of Basho's Japan. And the second if the inhuman machine if Imperial Japan that destroys the humanity of all caught in its thrall, the imperial machine that rewards psychopaths and bullies and turns others, more gentle souls into its fodder.

Is this an enjoyable read? No. Yet there is something that says read on, for if you do not, then the stories of all those who suffered and died in Burma on the railway will be lost. And that is why I continue reading.

Reading in October 2014

October and the nights are drawing in. And my journey to work is getting longer – and longer. A few days ago my 45 minute commute became 2½ hours as the Heathrow area descended into gridlock. So now is to time to dig out the audio books, and perhaps the eReader again.

This was funny in all the right places, pleasantly anarchic and boring. Somehow I had already read something like this – in the form of Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred Year Old Man and The Girl who Saved the King of Sweden. Underpinning these two books is a liberal and tolerant view of humanity combined with a “Horrible Histories” view of modern history. These two made the books eminently enjoyable to listen too. But I have given up on the Little Old Lady. Perhaps if I had found her before I found The Hundred year Old Man I would have persevered.
Next book to be abandoned was The Kabul Beauty Shop. Set in Kabul, this is the account of Deborah Rodriguez’s life in Afghanistan as she sets up a school to train Afghan women to be hair dressers and beauticians.

It does provide a fascinating view on a woman’s life in Kabul, the cruelty, the daily privations, and how life is lived in a burqa.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Little Coffee shop of Kabul, but this book drags. Perhaps it is the difference between a story, a narrative that pulls you along and account, which becomes a catalogue.

So what am I planning to read this October:

Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Audio book – I started to listen to this and decided to get the eBook version as well as it is a little difficult to follow at times in audio book format.

Short listed: We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Fowler – audio book.

And Susan Hill’s The Small Hand as we are due to see this as a stage play in Guildford.

Lastly, the latest Robert Galbraith novel The Silkworm for light relief.