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The Narrow Road to the Deep North - 2014 Man Booker Prize Winner

The Narrow Road to the Deep North - 2014 Man Booker Prize Winner

So, The Narrow Road to the Deep North leads, it emerges, to the Man Booker Prize. Richard Flanagan's affecting and harrowing story of the Burma “Death Railway” and the Australian prisoners of war who were forced to build it has trumped over 150 of the English-speaking world's best novels to carry off the prize.

The novel tells the story of Dorrigo Evans, a doctor who falls in love with his uncle's wife before the war and who survives the ordeal of the railway and Japanese mistreatment to return and be adopted by his country as a hero when he feels anything but. Flanagan's victory has an added poignancy in that his father, who died on the day the book was finished, was himself a survivor of the railway.

The judges deliberated for some three hours before agreeing on the winner. The judging process, said AC Grayling, Chair of judges, exposes quality because the best books bear re-reading. It was, he said, “a privilege to be on the Man Booker panel in a year with such extraordinary books”. So what is it that makes Flanagan's book, named after a celebrated work by the 17th-century Japanese haiku poet Basho, more extraordinary than the others?

It was, said Grayling, “the beauty of the writing, the profoundly intelligent humanity, the excoriating passages of great power, and the great truth of those who carrying on living after an event like that – when loved ones and comrades have been lost, when you are made into a hero but don't feel like one”. The novel had a visceral effect; it was, he said, like being “kicked in the stomach” and the shock – the “best and the worst of such a book” – was such he was unable to pick up another novel for a couple of days afterwards.

Although it is a historical novel (“Though for those of us over 21 the events don't seem that long ago”) it has great contemporary resonance. “with the enduring presence of conflict”, noted Grayling, “this depiction is timeless. It is about any war. Indeed it is not really a war novel but a novel about people.” What the judges found particularly striking, he said, is that it is nuanced – the Japanese as well as the Australians are victims. And this ability to see both sides, the judges believed, is one of the hallmarks of great literature.

Of course it is also a book that deals with two of literature's great themes, love and war. Dorrigo Evans, the philandering and flawed hero, is as haunted by the loss of his one great love as he is by the death of his comrades in circumstances of appalling brutality and hardship. Evans, a doctor, is better at facing down physical disfigurement and pain than he is emotional trauma. Flanagan's depictions of Japanese brutality and the depredations they in turn faced on their return to a bombed and defeated Japan are very hard to read. They are vivid, physical, harrowing. The emotional pain is of a different nature but no less sharp.

The question Flanagan asks is about the nature of heroism and the way personalities survive or are destroyed by such an ordeal. Some 16,000 of the 61,000 Allied prisoners who were forced to work of the railway died, so 45,000 men ended the war with crushed bodies and memories of barely believable horror that lasted for the rest of their lives. Flanagan has said that if the poem from which he took his title is one of the high points of Japanese culture then the treatment of the prisoners was one of its lowest. The book then is no mere literary exercise, however skilled, but an act of recognition and remembrance.

It would be a shame though if the potency of Flanagan's story overshadows his skill as a writer. It would perhaps have been easy to overplay the horror and aim solely for the reader's emotions. Flanagan's great craft is to mix in both restraint and psychological acuity. This is a novel of skill as well as power and, as such, a deserved Man Booker winner which echoes another Australian winner, Thomas Keneally, and Schindler's Ark from 1982.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North bears a dedication to prisoner san byaku san ju go, Flanagan's father's Japanese prison number, 335. The author himself now has a number of his own – number one.