Analysing Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize Winning Novel

Laura Elliott, KettleMag, Richard Flanagan, booker prize winner,
Written by Laura Elliott

In an earlier review for Kettle Mag, I called The Narrow Road to the Deep North “a deeply impressive novel” – but I also argued that the psychology of Flanagan’s juxtaposed love story relied too much on a “laboriously romanticised archetype.”

On the 14 October, however, the judges for the 2014 Man Booker Prize decided that, whatever its failings, Flanagan’s 12-year-in-the-writing novel deserved to take home the highest literary prize on offer in the Commonwealth. So, were they right?

A Prolific Writer

It is difficult to argue with Flanagan’s output over the course of his seventeen year authorial career. His first novel, Death of a River Guide, was described in 1997 by The Times Literary Supplement as “one of the most auspicious debuts in Australian writing”.

Flanagan’s works since then have won numerous accolades, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Queensland Premier’s Prize, and listings as the New Yorker’s Book of the Year and The Observer’s Book of the Year. With this in mind, it almost seems as though it were only a matter of time, before the Booker Prize was added to his list of auspices.

Indeed, his was a popular choice on social media among both writers and the public.

Rhyme and Reason

That isn’t to say though, that the competition wasn’t, as it always is, fierce. Flanagan’s fellow shortlisters included Howard Jacobson, who won the Booker in 2010 for his wisely comic The Finkler Question, and Ali Smith’s How to be Both was hotly tipped to take home the £50,000 prize.

But if the comments from the judges are to be believed, Flanagan’s tale, which was loosely based on the WWII experiences of his grandfather as a PoW on the infamous Japanese “Death Railway,” was the obvious choice to win.

Philosopher A C Grayling, the chair of the Booker panel, said the novel had a visceral sensation on reading, like being “kicked in the stomach”. For Grayling, it was “the beauty of the writing, the profoundly intelligent humanity, the excoriating passages of great power, and the great truth” inherent in the book, that made it the standout winner of this year’s competition.

This was something I also argued in my review last week. Flanagan imbues his prose with poetry in the form of haikus, ontological meditations, and a perceptive juxtaposition of the beauty of the Japanese culture, and the brutality of its war effort. Similarly, he forces us to make sympathetic leaps, from the perspective of the PoWs, to the recesses of the Japanese General’s psyche, thereby creating a nuanced and insightful work of historicised fiction.

Notable Absences

Five of the six shortlisted novels were published by global conglomerate Penguin – with, surprisingly, the exception of Flanagan’s winning novel. For me, however, there were some notable missing persons from this year’s Booker long-list. Most obviously, for me, Will Self’s incredible Shark, the second book in a trilogy, the first installment of which, Umbrella, was shortlisted for the Booker in 2012.

Similarly, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was surprisingly absent, and there was an unhappily white-male-focused selection from the get-go, with only one woman making the final six on the shortlist.

These slight issues aside, however, Flanagan’s deeply personal, refined, and thought-provoking  book is, in my opinion, a worthy winner of the Man Booker 2014. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is, as I’ve said before, a deeply impressive novel, written by an equally impressive writer.