BOOK REVIEW: The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Richard Flanagan, Vintage)

Narrow Road to the Deep North Book CoverIn Tasmania, a new book by Richard Flanagan is a much-anticipated event. He is, after all, a local hero. But he is much more than that, and with each book published his Australian and international reputation grows. The Narrow Road to the Deep North will continue this trajectory. It is a grand book. The story centres on Dorrigo Evans’ life as a surgeon in a prisoner of war camp on the Burma Railway. Dorrigo is a complex man who, for all his shortcomings, provides leadership and comfort to his men. Flanagan’s depictions of the men who are building the railway are fine portraits of Australians, good and bad; these depictions are cleverly balanced later in the book when Flanagan examines the effects of the war on the prison guards. The difference between the European/Australian and the Oriental/Japanese way of thinking is also used to great effect. At the beginning of the war Dorrigo meets a woman in a bookshop in Adelaide before being sent overseas for service. At the end of the war he marries another woman—the one he was expected to marry. The war leaves Dorrigo deeply unhappy; he behaves badly towards his family, while his reputation as a war hero grows. I truly believe anyone with an interest in Australia will enjoy this book. The trick will be getting it into the hands of nonfiction readers who will benefit from the understanding that only fiction can deliver. There is a particularly apt line in this book: ‘A good book … leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your soul.’ Will we get some national soul-searching from this book? We should.

Clive Tilsley is the owner and director of Fullers Bookshop. This review first appeared on the Books+Publishing website in August 2013. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Oldest Song in the World (Sue Woolfe, Fourth Estate)

The Oldest Song in the World is quite an incredible book. The story, with its mix of themes, is full of tension and interest. Kate is sent to a town outside Alice Springs to record an Aboriginal song that may be the oldest song in the world. She wants to go because she suspects the long-lost man in her life might be there. This sets up an interesting situation as Kate stumbles into a changed environment. She doesn’t understand local customs and makes blunders in communicating with Aboriginal people. She has dyed her hair and done much to change her appearance. And as she can’t find the woman who owns the song, Kate is forced to spend time settling in. Adrian, who may or may not be ‘her’ man, is her host, bossing her about and controlling her movements but also helping her stay out of trouble. A lot happens to Kate: she wants to help in the local school, she learns to cope with intermittent electrical supply, she is allowed to be on the edge of a night of local dancing, and so on. She also meets some very odd white people who display astounding attitudes to Aboriginal people in their fields of medicine, education and town duties. It all works though, and is totally engaging. I could tell you what happens but then you would miss the fun of this great story.

Clive Tilsley is the owner and director of Fullers Bookshop with almost 40 years in the trade. This review first appeared in the June/July issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.